Nollywood – When Hollywood Comes Calling…
The Nollywood grapevine has been abuzz in the last couple of days regarding news that a prominent Nollywood actress, Omoni Oboli, turned down a lead role in a Hollywood movie. Apparently, an American producer approached the Nollywood star about doing a movie in which her character would be featured having sex with three different men and in which she would be expected to be completely nude. According to Nigeria Films, the project, whose producer and name were not disclosed, was budgeted at $40 million and the report suggests that the role would have launched Omoni into international stardom; but would it have…?
Let’s take a closer look. Oboli, married and the mother of three children, was offered just $500,000. I say “just” but, whilst this amount would be considered an insult to the average Hollywood Z-lister, it would have made Oboli the highest paid Nollywood star ever (the average star salary being a few thousand dollars per Nollywood production). My feeling is that either the role is being hyped-up by Nollywood reporters, it’s a rumour that’s been put out there by Oboli’s publicity people to boost her profile in Nollywood, or Nollywood media speculators are naively unaware of the uneven playing field in the global arena.
Earlier this month Tambay posted an entry on this site (which you can read here), reporting that the “Nigerian film industry (Nollywood) has overtaken Hollywood and closed the gap on India (Bollywood), the global leader in the number of movies produced each year, according to a new United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report…” Hurray for Nollywood, right? But these figures only relate to the number of productions put out each year, with no mention of revenue. With Nollywood’s heavy reliance on video production, they can be as prolific they feel the need to be. According to the UNESCO survey, in 2006 Bollywood produced 1,091 feature-length films, while Nollywood put out 872 productions – all in video format.
The West has certainly been keenly taking note of the rise of Nollywood. Over the last few years, I’ve read various Western media reports covering the rise in popularity of the Nollywood’s output, not just in its home territory, but across the diaspora, particularly where African and Caribbean communities can be found in significant numbers. Back in 2004, The Guardian reported on Nick Moran, star of Guy Richie‘s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, going to Nigeria to make and star in his own Nollywood film. I never saw the finished product, but it aired on one of BBC’s fringe channels and can probably be dredged up somewhere online. Despite the difficulties faced in getting that project made, fascination with Nollywood still remains, with The Guardian reporting on it again two years later and with reports cropping up from time to time in US press. No doubt, the fascination is with how to tap into such a market, and the caution about doing so is due to lack of regulation of the industry and ability to keep tabs on revenues (pirating of Nollywood films, within and outside of Africa, is rife).
But let’s look at the West’s interest in Bollywood in the last year alone. In May 2008, The Times Online reported during last year’s Cannes Film Festival:
In June 2008, again from The Times Online:
In November last year from Desi Hits, with the headline “Will Smith & Anil Kapoor Talk Bollywood Collab with Aishwarya Ra” wrote:
From The Hollywood Reporter, also in November last year, writer Paul Schrader packs his bags for Bollywood:
And even the last Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, premiered in India before it was released anywhere else in the world, with MeriNews reporting:
And what does Nollywood get by way of “collaboration?” $500,000 for three sex scenes starring a nude Nollywood actress.
Of course, money aside (and, no doubt, Hollywood is scratching its head to figure out a secure way to get its share of the Nollywood market), cultural mores must surely come into play. India and Nigeria are both former British colonies of some significance and, with their histories so intertwined, it must be difficult for British filmmakers to view either country with much more than a neo- or post-colonial eye. Stalwarts of the Bollywood industry such as veteran actor, Amitabh Bachchan, were less than thrilled by the portrayal of India by British director, Danny Boyle, the kind of India that is very rarely portrayed in Bollywood films, not even in poor boy meets rich girl scenarios. Before Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, we were most likely to get a Merchant Ivory view of India from the viewpoint of white colonial ruling class or a culture-clash romance with a white protagonist. It’s only through British directors of Indian heritage like Gurinder Chadha, in movies like Bride and Prejudice, that we in the West get to see Indians as people who aren’t just there to serve as props for white protagonists.
While the US doesn’t have these colonial ties to India or Nigeria, it certainly has enough racial baggage of its own to colour its take on these cultures and their prolific film industries. Fortunately for India, however, their isn’t much cultural stereotyping to fall back on in the US; these aren’t native American Indians – they’re Asian. Whilst Asians have certainly played a role in America’s short history, their portrayal in America’s mainstream films has been limited, and American-Asians tend to be from China, Japan, Korea… India is a newer kettle of fish. On Planet Bollywood about four or five years ago, Amy Maharaj Page wondered why the sudden Hollywood interest in Indian film:
Hmm… she may have a point. Strong culture and family values are positive stereotypes that are held of Asians in America; and the attractiveness of Asian women has never seemed to be be in dispute in American culture, especially with a white male to for them to fall in thrall to.
So, between global economics and endemic racial stereotyping, where does this place Nollywood in the international playing field? Not in a very good place. Whilst Americans of all hues are falling over themselves to collaborate with Bollywood, America’s portrayal of its own black citizens leaves a lot to be desired in terms of fully fleshed out, multi-dimensional characters, something that’s debated constantly on this blog and, to a great extent, the reason that this blog, and other black cinema-related blogs, feel the need to exist. And, of course, the stereotypes of African-Americans is directly related to the those of their forebears. The simplification and implicit inferiority of Africans was key in keeping African slaves in bondage for hundreds of years and still very much informs the view of many Americans, black and white, and non-Africans in general, of Africans today.
Strong culture and family values are things that Nigeria has in abundance. However, Nollywood hasn’t exactly helped with regard to the portrayal of the diversity of life experiences in Nigeria among its every day citizens, with much of its output to date being woefully shallow – at best we have heavy-handed Tyler Perryesque moralising, on the other extreme there are gun-toting gangsters, desperate drug dealers, wily scam artists and profligate prostitutes. It’s a constant output of religious righteousness and juju (voodoo), good versus evil, with nary a fully developed storyline or character in sight.
I like to think that there is a Nollywood minority seeking to address the issue of prolificacy of output over quality of product but, while wider Nollywood continues to pander to the lowest common denominator in order to make a quick profit, it can’t expect Hollywood, who has also resorted to this formula of late but who also has a cannon of more profound and less crude output in its archives, to come calling with anything amounting to respect or collaboration on an equal footing – and neither should it solicit it, and certainly not just yet.
If the Oboli story is true, then I commend her stance and hope that other Nollywood stars take her lead, particularly female stars as, unless Hollywood is looking to provide company for Djimon Honsou, the definitive Hollywood African, there seems little room for male Nollywood actors in Hollywood as, indeed, there has seemed to be very little room for African Americans in American cinema for over a century other than to demean, emasculate or trivialise them and their presence in American history and culture – stars like Denzel Washington and Will Smith notwithstanding.
I’ve never seen Oboli in action, but I’m willing to bet that she’s one of the more attractive Nollywood’s female stars (though not quite on the scale of Eurocentric ideas of beauty that African-American actresses tend to have to conform to in order to make it big in their chosen profession), and I wonder if she possesses the kind of acting talent of actresses like Viola Davis, who has a great depth of talent but not the looks that Hollywood seeks. I don’t know whether the three men she’d be having sex with in this “starring” role would be white, black or martian, but it’s clear that her role would have been one in which the hyper-sexuality of African women, whether obligingly (most likely if she’s coupled with white men) or under duress and with undue aggression (quite probable if she’s with black men), would have been portrayed as simply her nature.
I look forward to the day that Nollywood can command the same kind of footing that Bollywood can currently boast of, where a mutually collaborative exchange can take place on a more or less equal footing. However, as it stands today, Nollywood is only ripe for exploitation for profit, and the proliferation of stereotypes of African people with which Western audiences can feel comfortable. Nollywood needs to work on diversifying its range and concentrate on stepping up its game with regard to developing both the business and the creative sides of the industry. Of course, $500,000 is still a lot of money to most, so how soon before an attractive, probably single, childless and ambitious Nollywood actress swallows the bait and takes her place in the Z-list of the Hollywood firmament?
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