Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti: Bringing a feminist icon to life on the big screen – Michael Kolawole

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the biopic of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti’s mother, drags us into a gripping and chaotic opening scene.

It opens with a violent raid on Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic, where soldiers brutally attack the denizens, including Funmilayo. The harrowing event captured in Fela’s 1979 album Unknown Soldier, sees her thrown from a second-story window and serves as a dramatic prelude to the biopic’s broader narrative, centered on Funmilayo’s revolutionary activism in Abeokuta.

The film, narrated by an older Funmilayo (Joke Silva) while recuperating in the hospital, uses a series of flashbacks to paint a vivid picture of her life’s journey. This storytelling technique allows us to follow her early years at Abeokuta Grammar School, her marriage to Israel Ransome-Kuti, and her pioneering efforts in the Abeokuta Women’s Union. These flashbacks not only provide context for her activism but also show her evolution from an educator to a formidable feminist and nationalist leader.

One of the key narrative shifts in the film is the transformation of the Abeokuta Ladies Club into the Abeokuta Women’s Union. This change, spearheaded by Funmilayo and her sister-in-law Grace Eniola Soyinka (Omowunmi Dada), shows her inclusive vision and commitment to bridging societal divides.

A pivotal moment in the film is the protest against the Aláké of Egbaland, an oppressive local ruler backed by colonial authorities. The women’s relentless protests against unfair taxation and exploitation resulted in a dramatic confrontation at the Aláké’s palace. After the guards beat and imprison the protesters, Funmilayo’s response is one of defiance and resilience. The women, egged on by Funmilayo, storm the palace, leading to the Aláké’s overthrow.

 Through the performances of Joke Silva, Iyimide Ayo-Olumoko, and Kehinde Bankole, we see the incarnation of its central character across different stages of her life. Funmilayo’s evolution from a determined young woman to a revered elder stateswoman is inspiring.

 Joke Silva’s portrayal of the older Funmilayo serves as the emotional and narrative anchor of the film. Her character is reflective and wise, offering a deep reservoir of experience and insight.

Capturing the budding resolve and intellectual curiosity of a young woman, Iyimide Ayo-Olumoko’s depiction of the younger Funmilayo sets the foundation for her later activism and feminist zeal. This period of Funmilayo’s life is marked by her formative experiences at Abeokuta Grammar School and her early exposure to the patriarchal structures of Nigerian society.

Marked by passionate speeches, strategic thinking, and a relentless drive that persuades the women of Abeokuta and its environs, Kehinde Bankole displays the emotionally intense activism of Funmilayo during her peak years. Each portrayal adds depth and context to the character, enriching our understanding of Funmilayo’s journey.

This film also explores how the men in Funmilayo’s life influenced and shaped her character. Her father is depicted as a source of courage and inspiration, who instilled in her the values of bravery and perseverance. Her husband, Israel Ransome-Kuti (Ibrahim Suleiman), emerges as a supportive partner who, despite his own battle with cancer, steadfastly encourages her activism. These relationships are well-portrayed, highlighting the interdependence and mutual support that fueled Funmilayo’s relentless fight against colonialism and patriarchy.

Bolanle Austen-Peters’ directorial approach to the story balances intense dramatic moments with quieter, reflective scenes. The chaotic opening sequence, with its rapid cuts and visceral brutality, contrasts with the more measured pace of the flashbacks, creating a rhythm that mirrors Funmilayo’s calm life and turbulent activism. This juxtaposition effectively keeps us engaged while providing them with the necessary context to understand the depth of her contributions.

Babalola’s screenplay is a blend of historical facts and creative storytelling. It’s also filled with witty and inspiring dialogue. However, certain liberties are taken for dramatic effect, such as the use of the term Dundee or Dundee United as an insult. While the term adds humour and a contemporary flavour, it is anachronistic and historically inaccurate. The term only gained popularity in Nigeria in the 1970s or 1980s, long after the events depicted in the film. Despite this, Funmilayo’s character is finely drawn and her activism is well explored.

 The biopic honours Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a trailblazing feminist in Abeokuta and Nigeria. With compelling storytelling, stellar performances, and a nuanced portrayal of her personal and political journey, it vividly brings her remarkable legacy to our contemporary discussions about women rights and their place in the patriarchal societies.

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