Afolayan’s ‘Death’ and Bandele’s ‘The King Horseman’: A Tale of Two Tributes – Joba Ojelabi
In the year that the 44th Alaafin of Oyo, Lamidi Adeyemi III, climbed to the rafters, two feature films co-produced by the global film company Netflix were released about the Oyo Empire: Kunle Afolayan’s Anikulapo and Biyi Bandele’s Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman.
Anikulapo, released in September 2022, is inspired by the stanza of the Ifa Corpus about Akala, the mythical vulture and its role in death and reincarnation. Afolayan provides a fictional story about the adventures of Saro (Kunle Remi), a cloth weaver from Iwo, who encounters Arolake (Bimbo Ademoye) in his itinerant quest for a better life. Arolake is Alaafin’s youngest wife and his favourite despite her barrenness. However, she is a victim of rivalry from her co-wives in the polygamous household and a target of murderous plots. Her encounter with Saro offers an opportunity for an adventurous affair and these adventures have consequences that drive the plot.
In Anikulapo, Afolayan’s setting creates a nostalgic feeling that reminds the audience of his early days in film as an actor playing the role of Aresejabata in Tunde Kelani’s films, Saworoide, and Agogo Eewo.
Veterans of the Yoruba Nollywood Taiwo Hassan, Moji Olayiwola, Kareem Adepoju, Sola Sobowale, Fathia Williams, Yinka Quadri, Adebayo Salami play several roles. Ropo Ewenla and Hakeem Kae-Kazim, familiar faces from Kunle Afolayan’s previous projects are also part of the cast; the latter gets away with the language dilemma his character would have posed courtesy of the screenwriter’s deftness. There are new faces as well, among whom are Eyiwumi Afolayan, Kunle Afolayan’s daughter; Adedoja Adeyemi, daughter of Lamidi Adeyemi III.
Anikulapo does more than bend the rules of life and death. It joins a list of films that set a new standard for the Yoruba film industry. At a time when the said industry rarely offers sober plots and depends on bland comedy, Afolayan’s film reminds us of the golden era of Yoruba films. Anikulapo also seems to have everyone at their best performances; veteran and debutant, cast and crew, earning Afolayan some laurels for his casting. Kunle Remi and Bimbo Ademoye are the stars of the show, and despite their overreaching accent, their performances deserve applause. The costumes are colourful and vibrant, and the cinematography efficiently conveys this vibrance from set to screen. Kent Edunjobi again shows his brilliance in the original soundtrack of the film. Combined with Anu Afolayan’s instrumentals, the soundtrack is easily one of its strongest points. First-timers Eyiyemi Afolayan, who plays the role of Princess Omowunmi, and Adedoja Adeyemi, who retains her royal status as a Princess in the film, give above-average performances.
Netflix announced the adaptation of Soyinka’s work to the big screen in 2020. While this is not the first adaptation of Nigerian literature to the big screen, it is the first time a major work of the Nobel laureate enjoys the attention of the modern screen. The last adaptation of Soyinka’s work to film was Kongi’s Harvest in 1970.
The project was executed by Mo Abudu’s Ebonylife Production, the studio responsible for The Wedding Party, Oloture, Fifty, The Royal Hibiscus Hotel and Chief Daddy. Ebonylife’s portfolio, like most other big film companies, has garnered mixed reactions.
Ebonylife brought filmmaker and frequent collaborator Biyi Bandele on board. Bandele had handled several projects, including Fifty (2015), Blood Sisters (2022), the 2013 adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Half of A Yellow Sun, etc. He was undoubtedly one of the best hands to bring Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman to the big screen.
Wole Soyinka wrote Death and the King’s Horseman during his fellowship at Churchill College following actual events in Nigeria during the Colonial era. The story is about Elesin, a high-ranking chief of the King whose role, according to the Yoruba tradition, is to perform a ritual suicide to aid the King’s spirit ascension upon demise. Without this ritual, it is believed that the King’s spirit would not cross to the great beyond and bring harm to his people. The film opens after the king’s demise, on the day Elesin is supposed to carry out this ritual.
Elesin lives out his last day in grandeur, obliged by the community members, who regard it as compensation for Elesin’s ultimate sacrifice. Iyaloja, another high-ranking chief, is prominent in the plot and obliges Elesin’s grandiose requests. However, the ritual is interrupted at the last minute by Simon Pilkings, the local administrator who regards Elesin’s suicide as illegal and pointless. This interruption causes turmoil and implies looming tragedy for the community. It also brings shame to Elesin, who cannot perform his responsibilities.
Bandele’s film almost recreates Soyinka’s play. However, while Soyinka wrote the original play in English, Bandele partly created the movie in Yoruba to better represent the culture. Kola Tubosun does a great job translating to Yoruba and back to English for the film’s subtitles. However, some parts of Soyinka’s original dialogues are left out. This close recreation of Soyinka’s play, while retaining the core of the narrative, is also a major setback of the film. A few minutes in, and it’s easy to see why. For instance, the dialogue sounds fresh off the pages of a book; perfect for a stage, unadapted for screen. The acting is not fluid. The actors are trying too hard to get applause from an audience.
Odunlade Adekola plays the main character of the story, Elesin. While the role drifts from his usual comical roles, the life-loving nature of the character placed Adekola in a familiar terrain. Olawale ‘Brymo’ Olofooro plays Olohun Iyo, Elesin’s right-hand man. ‘Olohun Iyo’ can be literally translated to ‘one with a salted voice’, a name reserved for griots, bards and people gifted with sonorous voices. One would expect that Olawale’s craft as a singer positions him to optimally execute the role. But perhaps due to the barriers of language, Brymo barely creates any magic with his voice as Olohun Iyo. All the praise singing is done by other characters in the film and all that is left for Brymo are crumbs of dialogue. The audience experience Brymo’s singing in some of the film’s soundtrack. Shaffy Bello plays the role of Iyaloja and delivers the best performance in the film. Adeyemi Okanlawon plays the role of Olunde, Elesin’s son in the film; Omowunmi Dada, Joke Silva, and Jide Kosoko are some other familiar names from the film.
What Bandele’s Elesin Oba lack in its screenplay, it makes up for in aesthetics. The costume and cinematography of the film give it vibrant colours that almost distract the audience from the film’s poetic dialogues and dreary sequences. Elesin Oba, just like the play, explores several themes that affect the individual and collective; obligation, identity, colonialism, and consequence amidst several others veiled behind its seemingly simple plot. At the superficial, it is a story of interfering with a man’s sacrificial suicide but there is much more to the plot, especially around colonialisation and the implications of acculturation.
For instance, in a scene where Elesin is taken away after his suicide his interrupted, he struggles with the guards and says, “Give me back my name, which you have stolen from me”. This statement gives an attentive viewer some inkling to how fundamental Elesin’s sacrifice is to his identity. The name, ‘Elesin Oba’ means ‘The King’s Horseman’.
The film’s feedback thus far suggests that this veil is still too much for the average audience to handle. The ultimate tragedy of the story makes this even worse, a sad end to a tedious plot.
Biyi Bandele passed on in August 2022 before the film was released, leaving the burden of exploration of his final work to the living. Without a doubt, the storyteller’s legacy is colourful!
For its political and economic dominance during the imperial era, the old Oyo empire is inevitable in narratives about West Africa from the colonial timeline. Most of that power has waned, but modern Oyo exists as a state in Nigeria and remains home to the Yoruba people. Nollywood in 2022, in its exploration of ‘Yoruba stories’ has produced colourful narratives of that time and place. Another worthy mention in the class of films that help achieve this is Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King.
The Woman King is a film about the Agojie, an all-female warrior group that fought to protect the old West African kingdom of Dahomey. The Oyo people are the villain in The Woman King, as some parts of the film’s plot highlights atrocities of the old Oyo empire in the slave trade. Although, a simple probe of the film suggests that The Woman King might be more American than African. The inability of most of the film’s cast to correctly pronounce Oyo is some justification for this assumption.
However, if the gatekeepers of the great beyond are lovers of film, surely they must have enough to grant Lamidi Adeyemi III passage, even without a horseman.