A few weeks ago, this came across my twitter timeline.
“In Hollywood movies, Russians/Arabs are (Nuclear) terrorists, the Japanese die aimlessly in battle, the Americans are the smart, patriotic, pragmatist who always saves the day. That is how Film is used to brand a country, to shape the social values and worldview (politics) of a country. If you have never visited America, Hollywood is all you need to see it as an enviable paradise, pillar of justice. But America is, obviously, shitty from within. You need to visit America or “read” protest writers (especially the minority) to see the real America. But this is not even the point. My anger is at Nollywood and how it does the opposite”- @KelvinOdanz
There were a lot of replies, the usual outrage in defence of Nollywood, then the other side, some people confirming their experiences and encounters (with fellow Africans) due to perceptions from Nollywood. Is this valid? Does Nollywood have blame in some of the negative ways the world see Nigerians? If so, can do the opposite and shape a fully dimensional image of Nigerians? Not necessarily a “positive” image but a more realistic picture?
The thread reminded me of the power of narrative and perception and a friend who schooled and then worked in the U.S for 10 years. In that time he never saw any FBI agent in their famous stencilled windbreakers, not once. But the television shows and movies made him aware of their existence. His perception of American Law Enforcement had been shaped by Hollywood long before he set foot in the U.S.
Today all you need is a social media account to interact with everyday American citizens. Before the internet, most Nigerian’s only exposure to American s was from television shows, movies and music videos. If you didn’t know any American, the movies were your major exposure. Nerds wore glasses, bad boys rode motorcycles, cool guys played football and the cutest girls were cheerleaders.
These movies and TV shows were the catalyst to a generation of 80s kids deciding America was where they needed to study and settle. We heard of Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, CALU, UCLA etc and desired to attend those schools; were sold on the American armed forces by films like Top Gun, Iron Eagle, Stripes etc. Young Nigerians left for the US and joined the Navy or Army because these films sold us on the nobility, patriotism (and bad-assery) of being a U.S soldier, a Navy Seal, the few the proud the free. Something they would curse you for suggesting they do for Nigeria.
Film and TV shows in the 90 s painted a picture of African Americans as mostly thugs, gangbangers, hood rats or people with a chip on their shoulder who blamed “the man” for everything wrong with their life. Why? The prevalence of hood films, the stereotype of Black men as criminals, black women as weave snatching loudmouths with multiple baby daddies. The same way Hollywood convinced many that Africans all live in mud huts in the midst of wild life, something many still believe in 2017.
Cinema has been used throughout history for various purposes; Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” convinced a lot of Germans to believe in Hitler’s cause. Utilizing the language of film and powerful imagery it won the Fuhrer the support he sought. Uncle Sam responded with “Why we Fight”, which convinced many Americans to support the government in joining WW2, whether it was by joining the arm, buying war bonds, morale or other means. Cinema is that powerful.
Nigerians were collectively pissed about the portrayal of Nigerians in District 9, ditto, the Will Smith accent in Concussion, cos we didn’t like those portrayals, inaccuracies. How we portray and what we say about ourselves in all art forms and stories are equally important.
I’m not suggesting we run away from the reality that there is a lot of evil in Nigeria like anywhere else in the world, a lot, but even in that subject matter, tone, context, delivery etc all matter in how the narrative is presented. Gritty realism of City of God didn’t put the whole of Brazil in a bad light but the shaping of the narrative highlighted it was a harsh reality for many young Brazilians.
However, what is glorified or normalized on screen as our identity as a people, especially without a balance to show shades of grey, absolutely matters. Hollywood is also bad at portraying anybody who isn’t Caucasian; resorting to lazy stereotypes, archetypes, clichés and reductive short cuts in portraying Asians, Latinos, Africans, Indians and other ethnicities. The people from these communities are justifiable outraged and disappointed and many have decided not to wait for Hollywood to portray them accurately and tell their own stories.
“Art is inherently political. Even trying to make a film that has nothing to do with politics is, in and of itself, a political act. Once we make the work and release it into the world, it’s beyond our control.” — Barry Jenkins
We can’t complain about the American sitcoms making Nigerians the butt of jokes and negative portrayals in Hollywood films when we do similar to ourselves with tribal stereotypes/cliché’s, shallow archetypes, one dimensional characters; the lazy gateman from a certain tribe, the seductive house-girl from a certain part of the country, witchcraft, Pastors or Imams being the solution to all things. Perception matters and these create more than the laughs they intend to get.
African American filmmakers like Spike Lee know this power I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to express the views of black people who otherwise don’t have access to power and the media. I have to take advantage of that while I’m still bankable.
This is not to suggest that every film should have a “message”; navel gazing, meditative, pseudo intellectual or life changing. Nor saying, filmmakers shouldn’t make entertainment, fun films or aim to make people laugh while making a tonne of money. There will always be room for such films and not every filmmaker can pull off certain tones and themes. But we have to keep in mind that cinema is powerful and in as much it can be entertainment, it also has life changing ability. Films have shaped paradigms, worldviews, perceptions, ideology. We can’t finance and put blood, sweat and tears into reinforcing the existing negative images they have of us.
The visual images of cinema penetrate our subconscious, taking a place in the deep recesses of minds and lying in wait till it can be confirmed or reinforced. Nigerian filmmakers can play a huge role in how the world perceives us. Through stories, narrative and the power of cinema, we can show we are more than the negative press on 24 hours news cycle, the email they received from a Prince, the bad experience their friend had, or the conclusion they have drawn from hearsay. We can shape our own narrative, and it’s not by whitewashing, pretending to be squeaky clean or creating a façade, but by being intentional with the narrative we shape through the power of cinema.