Directed by: Kunle Afolayan , Genevieve Nnaji , Mati Diop  || Produced by: Golden Effects , Chinny Onwugbenu , Judith Lou Lévy, Eve Robin 
Screenplay by: Kemi Adesoye , Genevieve Nnaji, Chinny Onwugbenu , Mati Diop, Oliver Demangel  || Starring: Ramsey Nouah, Omoni Oboli, Kunle Afolayan, Funlola Aofiyebi-Raimi, Tosin Sido , Genevieve Nnaji, Nkem Owoh, Pete Edochie, Onyeka Onwenu, Kanayo O. Kanayo , Ibrahima Traore, Mame Sane, Amadou Mbow, Nicole Sougou, Aminata Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, Diankou Sembene 
Music by: Eliam Hoffman, Wale Waves , Kulanen Ikyo , || Cinematography: Yinka Edward [1, 2], || Edited by: Kayode Adeleke, Steve Sodiya , George Cragg , Aël Dallier Vega  || Country: Nigeria [1, 2], Senegal, France, Belgium  || Language: English1-2, Yoruba1, Igbo2, Wolof3, French3
Running Time: 122 , 95 , and 104  minutes || 1 = Araromire, 2 = Lionheart, 3 = Atlantics
I figure most people’s exposure to the African filmmaking diaspora is indirect, with most audiences outside the continent watching black-oriented films produced via descendants of African immigrants (often slave descendants) in the West, or through a non-black, non-African colonialist perspective. However much these directorial perspectives fit within the broader social justice movements of, say, 3rd Cinema or other international New Wave movements is unclear to me, but my personal familiarity with native sub-Saharan African cinema is limited. I’ve seen thousands of films, yet only two Nigerian pictures (both subjects of today’s essay), for instance, despite the Nigerian film industry being the second largest on the planet by output volume and a dominant presence throughout its parent continent. The sub-Saharan features to be discussed in this essay, Araromire (English title: The Figurine), Lionheart, and Atlantics, are distinct yet comparable works of a changing African film landscape, and all three are the directorial debuts of actors by trade.
The Figurine and Lionheart represent interesting examples of contemporary Nigerian film, which seeks to distinguish itself from the lower budgeted, direct-to-video productions of the 1980s-2000s, transitioning back to the higher production values and theatrical models of the national industry’s golden age. The former is often posited as a watershed film for Nigerian cinema, combining multiple genres through an inventive script that mixes local spiritual heritage with a modern cinematographic look and feel. Written and directed by Kunle Afolayan, The Figurine is essentially a love-triangle melodrama wrapped in a horror genre coat, depicting a trio friends (Ramsey Nouah, Omoni Oboli, and Afolayan) who stumble upon a mystical idol (the fictional titular Araromire figurine) that grants people seven years of good and bad fortune.
Like Atlantics, The Figurine’s superstitious overtones enhance its drama and lend ambiguity to its plot. Unlike Atlantics, however, Afolayan’s film can’t hide its budgetary restrictions and presumably its limited production team: Sound-design is clunky, too many ensemble shots are flat, and lighting is inconsistent throughout. The Figurine is built atop a solid fucking script, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I enjoyed its conclusion, but I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit the movie’s technical execution feels amateurish.
Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart, the first Netflix Original production based in Nigeria, is a traditional family drama intermixed with local ethnic dynamics and mild visual comedy. The general outline of Lionheart’s script — an upstart businesswoman (Nnaji) working under her father’s (Pete Edochie) shadow must prove her worth to inherit the family business — is reminiscent of numerous crowd-pleasing dramas the world over, family-friendly in its tone and dialogue while patient in its character development. Nnaji shows promise with her efficient use of dialogue and drama, often shooting her characters in double, which keeps the film’s pace snappy, while also switching to jarring close-ups or sharp editing rhythms (see the works of Edgar Wright) on occasion for humorous effect.
My biggest criticisms of movies like Lionheart aren’t so much a function of their bland cinematography — Lionheart uses the aforementioned touches of visual humor enough to stand apart — so much as their lack of memorable narrative stakes or tension. Put in simplest terms, Lionheart’s central conflict feels pedestrian and boring given its central cast’s status as veritable royalty. Njani’s protagonist is comparable to the spoiled suburban American teenagers of various John Hughes flicks (e.g. The Breakfast Club , Ferris Bueller’s Day Off , Home Alone ) or the upper-caste melodrama of numerous Hindi musicals, yet without those movies’ overwhelming visual style or well dissected personalities. Plenty of great stories have been told, including on film, about rich people’s problems, but Lionheart’s conflict and principle characters feel so unimportant I yearned for more melodrama.
Senegalese cinema, on the other hand, has garnered outsize attention relative to its country’s modest population and geopolitical stature, with directors Ousmane Sembène (e.g. Black Girl , Xala ) and Djibril Diop Mambéty (e.g. Touki Bouki ) frequently referenced as influential filmmakers within the aforementioned 3rd Cinema movement. Sembène in particular is regarded as “the father of African cinema” given his groundbreaking visual analyses of his native Senegal’s complicated relationship with its former colonial state, France.
Atlantics, a French-Senegalese production that competed for the Palm d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, is the directorial debut of French actress and niece of Mambéty, Mati Diop. Part supernatural thriller and part romantic tragedy, Atlantics would not be out of place in a college world cinema class given its stylistic identity, effective sociopolitical commentary, and memorable yet understated characters. The film describes the colorful yet often suffocating lives of working-class families in the coastal capital city of Dakar, wherein young men struggle to find stable employment on which to support new families and young women navigate conservative religious mores that limit personal freedoms. Connected to this rich diegesis, embellished with overexposed natural lighting and long, haunting takes of the Atlantic Ocean, is a neat supernatural plot-device involving ghostly possession. Top to bottom, Diop’s coordination of memorable cinematography, a relatable cast, and a creative genre-twist elevate her movie’s thematic imagery above the lion’s share of socially conscious cinema.
As disparate as the tones of The Figurine, Lionheart, and Atlantics may be, each film presents an intriguing, memorable depiction of regional cinema that may be overlooked in the West. The latter is several levels above the former two in execution, with Mati Diop extending her family’s artistic legacy into a second century, while Lionheart and The Figurine are suitable introductions for novices of Nigerian cinema. Are any of these films true crowd-pleasers? For audiences outside their parent countries, I would wager not, particularly due to the budgetary restrictions of The Figurine and the impotent drama of Lionheart, but for what it’s worth, I found them enjoyable samplings of African cinema that felt quite unlike most cinema I’d seen before.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: For those interested in melodrama with mild genre twists, check out The Figurine and Atlantics. Lionheart is perhaps the most unambitious of the three, feeling more like the pilot of a television show than a standalone feature, but it’s a professional drama with enough competent visual humor to impress.
—> I remain ON THE FENCE with respect to The Figurine, given its technical limitations, and Lionheart, given its mediocre screenplay, while Atlantics comes RECOMMENDED for its creative genre-blending and high production values.
? So, which characters were dead at the end of Araromire? I’m confused…