By Kunle Afolayan’s third major film, his name was made. It helped that the director comes from an illustrious ancestry, being the scion of Ade Love, a man who made his name onscreen and is thought in some quarters as one of the true pioneers of Nollywood, or, if your prefer a different name, the Nigerian movie industry.

But even his detractors will tell you his father’s name mattered little on the big screen. What got Afolayan noticed was the expansiveness of his vision and a commitment to cinematic spectacle. If you were into Nollywood, his breakout picture, The Figurine, was an event. (There was Irapada before that, but it has been eclipsed by its successor.)

The Rise

The production value of Figurine was clearly above what obtained normally in the industry. And its script remarkably embraced the epic with a story essentially about the relationship between two men and a woman over years. Though it had a spotty ending, a problem that shows up in nearly every Afolayan film, The Figurine clearly meant business, and everyone noticed.

Phone Swap followed. A fine comedy of class and romance, it showed Afolayan’s versatility. A man who dished out a film with a voodoo subplot had directed a film with Wale Ojo’s irritated face as its only menace.

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Then came October 1, Afolayan’s magnum opus. Released the same year as the Biyi Bandele adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, October 1 joined that film in looking at the past but was much better. Afolayan recreated the past and installed within it a murder plot. It too had its flaws, but you could hardly deny both the man’s hard work and his grand vision. And when Nollywood watchers talk about Afolayan, it is October 1 and The Figurine that they talk about. Phone Swap is forgotten—unfairly, I think, as at the time I believed some of his film’s flaws were tied to their maker’s penchant for spectacle.

In some ways, that belief holds true. But mostly these days, I am probably not alone in wishing for the Afolayan spectacle.

The Decline

The CEO was the first headscratcher. Beyond any consideration of script cohesion and artistic merit, the idea was an Africa-wide cash-grab. A royal rumble set-up—or, literally, a game of musical chairs—for the succession of a company turns into the serial-killing of contestants. At the helm of the set-up was a conductor/consultant played by a stiff Angelique Kidjo, whose win of Best Supporting Actress for the role was surely because an intoxicated African Movie Academy Award jury thought they were considering her singing talent and Grammy Award legacy. The flaws were legion: Most of the actors playing the contestants were barely actors; the script started from implausibility and ended up in Neverland; and, unforgivably, the third act, as I wrote at the time, was thoughtless.
But even The CEO’s problems are incomparable to the three films, all released this year and all financed by Africa Magic, which have succeeded it.

The first of these films, Omugwo, is centred on a pair of mothers-in-law played by Ayo Adesanya and Patience Ozokwor. Both actresses signalled that Afolayan intended to work with tools from old Nollywood. But because Afolayan’s films have an uneasy relationship with that Nollywood—he rarely uses its known faces—the optimist might have been led to think he will make a film considerably different from the traditional Nollywood, or at least make a commentary on old Nollywood in the way Kenneth Gyang and Abba Makama did in one scene each in Confusion Na Wa and Green White Green respectively. Gyang and Makama came to bury the tradition; Afolayan came to praise it.

Omugwo a 2017 film by Kunle Afolayan photo credit youtube

Adesanya’s character turns out to be a spoilt mother-in-law whose sole consideration is herself; Ozokwor is the good mother-in-law. The complexity and ambiguity of Afolayan’s earlier pictures are abandoned for the straight-up good and bad woman trope. Besides the reversal of Ozokwor from bitchy woman to godsend, the writing and acting and cinematography of Omugwo fall within the tradition that Afolayan, by making The Figurine, had delivered Nollywood from. Why was our Moses taking us back to Egypt? Isn’t that the job of less talented, less ambitious filmmakers?

Kunle Afolayan, by making The Figurine, delivered Nollywood from its past. Why is our Moses taking us back to Egypt?

The Slide Continues

The second of these films Roti, to my mind the best of Afolayan’s Africa Magic Three, did show some ambition. A woman who has lost her son sees a child who looks very much like her dead child and, despite entreaties from her husband, begins to stalk the child. A film about the irrationality of love and grief, it showed Afolayan’s soft side. His physical presence as husband and father in the film does too little for the story but in choosing a wonderful Kate Henshaw as wife and mother on the verge of a breakdown, Afolayan makes a decision that saves the film from its self-imposed smallness. And of all of the traditional Nollywood actors and actresses Afolayan was certainly encouraged to use by Africa Magic in these films, Henshaw proves the most useful. Crying, sleeping or even staring, she conveys a stronger presence than her peers in more vigorous positions.

There is also what looks like Afolayan’s rebellion against the norm, as he traffics in stillness and some languor, which helps to emphasise the perspective of the bereaved: to survivors, each day is the same dull day without a person who added colour to time’s inexorable motion.
Although the ages of the lost son and the rediscovered one don’t quite add up to a viewer watching with one finger on a calculator and one eye on a calendar, Henshaw’s believability and her immersion in her character’s sadness insists on your own care and concern. And while parts of the script could be less cliché, Afolayan’s occasional voiceover could be less draggy, and the ending could be better, Ms Henshaw’s casting as lead actress is a boon.

The Final Fall

Tribunal is not so lucky. The last and least picture of the Africa Magic set has Omotola Jalade-Ekeinde at the centre. This, as anyone who saw Jalade-Ekeinde’s comeback vehicle Alter Ego would know, is prelude to a disaster. She is as unbelievable as the head of a firm who fires an albino employee in this one as she was a nymphomaniac lawyer in that one. The aggrieved employee (played well, if a little high-strung, by newcomer Damilola Ogunsi) takes her to court and is represented by a young inexperienced lawyer (Ade Laoye) and an older alcoholic one (Funsho Adeolu). They slug it out in arbitration, with Jalade-Ekeinde going from one secondary-school-drama-look-of-indignation to another.
It is easy enough to see this as a build-up to redemption, but even that proves difficult to believe as there is too little investment in character to bring about a credible redemption for the alcoholic lawyer. As for the case, what decides it is less a trick of brilliance from the lawyers than the magical swish of a screenwriter’s pen.

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Tribunal is filmed entirely around Lagos Island, with City Hall gobbling chunks of the time and one other scene taking place at Freedom Park. This lack of movement mirrors the shrinking of Afolayan’s vision. A director who moved through time from an era past to the a few years in the present in The Figurine has become a man who moves five minutes from City Hall to Freedom Park.

This lack of movement in Tribunal mirrors the shrinking of Afolayan’s vision

Nigeria is a tricky place to make a movie, so we have to believe that budget might have been a problem. And it is hard to see Africa Magic doling out the monies used to make The Figurine, Phone Swap and October 1 within a year to any director. But no one but Afolayan and Africa Magic know what has happened in the boardroom—both in terms of budget and of interference. What has happened on the big screen is clear. Kunle Afolayan, who made his name with two of his first three films, appears to have unmade that name with two of his last three films. Let’s hope his new film ‘The Bridge’ is a return to form.