By Olukorede Yishau
I cannot remember exactly when I outgrew my crush on Stella Damasus, the Atlanta-based Nigerian thespian who is a pioneer of our movie industry known as Nollywood. I remain her fan though. A week and some days ago, Stella was involved in a twitter battle over the pending adaptation of Americanah, the amazing love story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
The 2013 novel, for which Chimamanda won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Fiction award, tells the story of a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who immigrates to the United States to attend university. She is in love with Obinze, who eventually relocates to London but finds life as an illegal immigrant difficult. He is bundled back home and fortune later smile on him. Distance breaks them up. Ifemelu starts another relationsh, and then another one, but her heart remains with Obinze, who also moves on by getting married and starting a family. But for the two of them, what goes up must come down.
Of Adichie’s three novels, Americanah seems to have made the most impact. Like her Half of a Yellow Sun, Americanah is set to go on the screen.
Work on the television series, which the book is being adapted into, started five years ago. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o is the brain behind it. Her Black Panther co-star Danai Gurira is serving as the series’ writer and show-runner. D2 Productions, Plan B Entertainment and Potboiler Television are actively involved in the project.
The 10-part series is going to air on HBO Max. Its Head of Original Content, Sarah Aubrey, in a statement, said: “Americanah has sparked a cultural phenomenon and is revered by fans around the world. It has affected me deeply as one of the most moving, socially relevant and romantic stories of our time… This series will give viewers a uniquely heartfelt and unforgettable experience.”
Lupita is going to play the lead role, Ifemelu — an Igbo lady. There lies the battle Stella had to do. She feels this is unfair and wonders why Genevieve Nnaji, Rita Dominic or Stephanie Linus cannot be chosen to play the role. Respected Nigerian writers, such as Lola Shoneyin, Chika Unigwe and Molara Woods, took on Stella and insults were traded.
Over the years there have been many Hollywood movies with Nigerian characters played by people from other nations. Their interpretations of the roles have always been subjects of disagreements. This is where Stella is coming from and I am sure this will continue when the series goes on air. People will watch out to see how Lupita, who is from Kenya, will pronounce Igbo names. Will she speak Igbo?
Biyi Bandele’s adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun was enmeshed in a similar controversy. Not a few felt the twins should have been played by Nigerians instead of Thandie Newton (Olanna) and Anika Noni Rose (Kainene).
Nollywood is an industry that is cash-challenged. Acquiring screen rights of internationally-published works, such as Americanah, does not come cheap. By some agreement, ace cinematographer and director Tunde Kelani adapted some literary works of the late Akinwunmi Isola, such as Kosegbe and Oleku. Jude Dibia’s Walking with Shadows is also set to become a movie. I am sure no one dictated the choice of lead actors to either Kelani or Funmi Iyanda, the force behind the adaptation of Dibia’s book.
Unlike Nollywood, the adaptation of literary works is commonplace. Movies, such as The Hate U Give, Crazy Rich Asians, If Beale Street Could Talk and hundreds of others, are made from books. Unconfirmed reports say over half of Hollywood movies were first books.
Like Stella, I believe Nollywood is blessed with great actors. She is one. So are Genevieve, Stephanie, Rita, Omoni Oboli, Richard Mofe-Damijo (RMD), Olu Jacobs, Adesua Etomi-Wellington and many others. There is one particular actor that I am crazy about: She is Toyin Abraham. If you go to the movies now and there are three Nigerian movies on display, chances are that Toyin will be in two. Mama Ire and World Best, as her fans call her, had a fantastic run in 2017. The Auchi, Edo State-born girl finds it easy acting in English, Yoruba and Pidgin English.
In one of her promotional materials for the sequel to Wives on Strike, ace actor and director Omoni Oboli predicted that the world would celebrate Toyin for her role as Iya Bola in the flick. I saw the film and could not agree less. Toyin was simply crazy. Not that other actors were not good. They were. But Toyin was the life of that film, which showed that comedy could be full of messages for us all to learn from. There is no scene with this crazy girl that falls below standard. As they say, she simply killed the role and my mind was simply made up about who should earn my trophy for Actor of 2017.
In Pathetic, Tatu, Alakada Reloaded, Okafor’s Law, The In-laws, Celebrity Marriage and Wives on Strike the Revolution, Toyin gave her all in 2017. She was like the most-sought-after actor of that year and she has remained a hot cake this year. I am not sure even Ire, her baby, can slow her down. She seems to have so much energy and she burns them on the set. Her performance in Tatu was in a different light. She interpreted the role so well that one but felt the pain the character was made to go through. The scene where she was put in a hole was well delivered.
While the talents of Toyin and many others are not in doubt, it is not an automatic ticket that when Nigeria-centred roles are available in Hollywood it will be waiting for them. Genevieve and Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde have a measure of international fame, but, even at that, power (role) is never served a la carte. There are other considerations other than talents.
My final take: He who pays the piper calls the tune. Movie-making, like publishing, is business and the investors are always concerned about how to recoup their investment. This is, for me, a genuine concern. They are not into charity. If they feel that they need Hollywood actors to get the return on their investment, we certainly cannot begrudge them.
I have been told Nigerian novels, such as Night Dancer, On Black Sisters’ Street, The Fishermen, Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, In the Name of Our Father and Lakiriboto, will make good movies. I also believe Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me will make a great screenplay. So, Nollywood should look for money, option these novels and decide who plays what role. It is ridiculous to tell a businessman how to recoup his money.