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Patriotism and Nationalism Reignited in the Most Authentic Way in “Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti”

Tunde Babalola and Bolanle Austen-Peters, through a beautiful execution, restore the legacy of one of Nigeria’s most famous activists as the “Lioness of Lisabi,” reminding us that people, not the land, make a country.
June 2, 2024
7:17 pm
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti would have likely been dismayed if she were alive during the past three decades because this weapon for political change has been reduced to being known as “the first Nigerian woman to drive a car,” which is a minimalistic view of her impactful legacy.


This reductive perception is probably what prompted the creators of this biopic, “Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti”. Unlike films like “Amina” and “Ayinla” that brought lesser-known figures into the limelight, Bolanle Austen-Peters and her crew seek not to introduce Funmilayo, but to set straight the records. They remind the nation that there is far more to the “Lioness of Lisabi” than pioneering automobile ownership.


How best to do so? Perhaps by focusing on one of the most significant developments in Nigeria’s fight against colonialism: the 1947 Abeokuta women’s riot. By using this approach, it avoids the pitfall common with biopic movies that try to race through the protagonist’s lifetime in two hours without sacrificing character development and story weight, which is a task that even seasoned writers and directors have barely proven capable of pulling off. It’s for this reason and more that Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” (2023) was well received, and Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” (2023) was divisive.


The film’s brutal opening, depicting the raid on her son Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta residence where Funmilayo is thrown from a second-story balcony, reminds the audience of the sacrifices of our heroes past and serves as an entry point into a narrative montage.


Bolanle Austen Peters cameo appearance
Bolanle Austen Peters cameo appearance

Spanish journalist Tatianna Nassar Boudokhane’s interview with Funmilayo on her hospital bed takes viewers down memory lane. Here, Joke Silva’s reserved portrayal of an elder Funmilayo gives way to a more vibrant depiction of her teenage self by Iyimide Ayo-Olumoko, and later her middle-aged activist self by Kehinde Bankole.


Casting a Nollywood elder stateswoman to play an actual elder stateswoman is brilliant, but Kehinde Bankole’s performance truly stands out. After all, portraying the “Lioness of Lisabi” is no mean feat. From her early years, we get a sense of the Funmilayo we were dealing with: a no-nonsense but fair-dealing woman who would trample on hot coal if it meant quenching the fires of oppression.


Among her activities, the movie wisely chooses the Abeokuta women’s riot. Few events during that period perfectly capture the oppression and colonial undertones – which are still relevant nearly eight decades on – and the subsequent reaction that the movie aims for. The excessive taxation imposed by the local British representative “Dundee” (Peter Thomas) and championed by the Alake’s (Adebayo “Oga Bello” Salami) stubbornness proved too much for Abeokuta’s working-class women who revolted and deposed the latter, albeit temporarily.


The film does not rush this development nor present it as a spontaneous revolt. Instead, it showcases Funmilayo’s meticulous efforts. Massive sensitization of the market women was necessary, which only succeeded after Funmilayo ditched British clothing for Adire and transformed the Abeokuta Ladies Club into the Abeokuta Women’s Union upon realizing the gross sense of disconnectedness.


Funmilayo reasonably takes center stage in her own movie, but there’s a feeling of it doing so too much, often to the detriment of other characters who seem uninspired. One could argue the movie doesn’t want to indulge the audience in what it considers “unnecessities,” but some relationships, such as that with Eniola Soyinka (Wole Soyinka’s mother) played by Omowunmi Dada, could have used more exploration.


Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti

It is safe to say that “Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti” is a critique of modern-day feminism by reminding the movement of its origins. An interesting scene, during the storming of the palace, saw the protesters denounce the “manhood” used to justify patriarchy, asserting instead that they would use their vaginas to rule the kingdom. Despite the strong show of feminism, the main pillars of the heroine’s mentality are men: her father and her husband, Israel Ransome-Kuti (Ibrahim Suleiman). The former’s longtime advice of beating the imperialists at their own game proved invaluable in the moments leading to the Alake uprising.


Historical accuracy and era recognition – problems typical with biopics and historical epics – are duly addressed, although the choice to favor English dialogues, even in informal settings and in the Alake’s palace, is a slap on the face of the Yoruba mother tongue.


Famous for penning “October 1” (2014), Tunde Babalola’s script, which won Best Writing in a Movie at the recently-concluded 2024 AMVCA, fits perfectly well with Austen-Peters’ direction. Austen-Peters’ penchant for social commentaries, if ever in doubt with “Collision Course” and “Man of God,” is cemented with “Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.”


As the credits roll, the air reeks of patriotism and nationalism. And what better time to release a film about one of the fiercest African nationalist figures of the 20th century than when national unity is being tested and oppression is at an all-time high? The movie, alongside “Ayinla” (2021) and upcoming Joshua Ojo’s “Wole Soyinka” and Awam Amkpa’s “The Man Died,” is Nollywood realization of the social significance of biopics and historical epics – something TNR has previously called for.


Release Date:  May 17, 2024

Runtime: 1 hour and 30 minutes

Streaming Service: Cinematic Release

Director: Bolanle Austen-Peters

Cast: Kehinde Bankole, Joke Silva, Iyimide Ayo-Olumoko, Ibrahim Suleiman, Jide Kosoko, Omowunmi Dada, Abosede Osho, Tracy George, Dele Odute, Bukky Ogunnote, Adunni Ade, Adebayo “Oga Bello” Salami and Peter Thomas,

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