The Herbert Macaulay Affair: A Sign of Things that Should come –Ayodele Ibiyemi

One of the things that filmmaker Imoh Umoren did successfully was promote his movie, The Herbert Macaulay Affair. He did not do it because it was his first movie but because of the story’s significance. The movie is a biopic about the life of Herbert Macaulay, one of the founding fathers of Nigeria.  On Twitter, Imoh Umoren shared his journey to making the movie as well as  the challenges. He also shared snippets of the movie with his followers whom he asked to use the movie’s poster as their display pictures. This was not out of place for a movie that features the story of a public figure. Herbert Macaulay was an engineer, politician and surveyor. His face adorns Nigeria’s one naira coin, which inflation has now rendered useless.

Watching The Herbert Macaulay Affair, it is difficult to miss the scripting as it is engaging and interesting. The story is well researched and well written; and the historical events are rendered with uncanny accuracy. One of the most significant things about the movie is the dialogue. Bisi Jamgbadi is credited with writing it. The movie also resurrected discussions about the role of Herbert Macaulay in Nigerian history. It is amazing how many young Nigerians thought Herbert was white but were corrected on social media. This might also be excusable as Macaulay’s two popular names are foreign names. In a country with foreign education and political systems, such ignorance is understandable.

Many of the scenes were shot in iconic locations. The Jaekel House which is now a monument was used and it is one of the very few buildings that can serve the purpose. Also, the historic Mapo Hall that was constructed in the colonial times was used. In a country where historical buildings are fast disappearing, the use of these buildings show that effort was put into using appropriate locations. Because of the lacking sense of history by Nigerian authorities, movies like The Herbert Macaulay Affair have to be shot using improvised locations. A lot of minimalism was adopted in the scenes; the filmmaker relied on close shots, sky shots and overhead shots. These helped to tell the story with minimal reenactment of the actual scenes. Despite this, the movie’s historical accuracy is uncanny. All the nuances of language use from the era were taken into cognizance. Also, the movie raises the question of land ownership in colonial Nigeria with the sub-plot of the land ownership tussle between Chief Amodu Tijani and the Colonial authorities. In African historiography, East Africa is often placed at the fore of land issues during the colonial times. This movie centers colonial Nigeria in the discourse of land ownership.

However, the movie is not without few infelicities. The characters were always formally dressed. Perhaps it is an attempt to reinforce the dichotomy between educated Africans in the colony and their uneducated counterpart. Even in their houses and in periods where they might have worn casual dressing, they appear formally dressed. The question this raises is whether Herbert Macaulay was always formally dressed. Also, the sound scoring is fitting and it was professionally done but it was a little overbearing at different times, almost overshadowing the actual conversations.

One of the strength of the movie also proved to be a weakness. This is the introduction of Alimotu Pelewura. Pelewura was a market women leader, politician and activist who co-ordinated many women groups and led protests against obnoxious tax regimes by the administration. She was also a collaborator of Herbert Macaulay’s. Despite the enormous contributions of women like her, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Tanimowo Ogunlesi, Adunni Oluwole and others, they have been deliberately erased from history. Pelewura’s inclusion is commendable and it gives credence to the political activities of Herbert Macaulay. However, she should have been given a more prominent role and her role should have been better highlighted. She is portrayed as firm and reasonable but more should have been done to correct the erasure of women like her from Nigerian history.  

The Herbert Macaulay Affair is redemption for the much maligned Nollywood, a confirmation of the fact that Nollywood is capable of telling authentic Nigerian stories. As good as the movie is, it also oversimplifies who Herbert Macaulay was. Macaulay was more complicated than the movie portrays. Naming the movie after him is a good decision but the movie represented only a slice of his life. Including the word ‘affair’ in the title might also put that to rest.

My candid opinion is that the most important narrative surrounding Herbert Macaulay’s history is his victory at the Privy Council in London. Nevertheless, it is not about what the movie did not do but what it did and what it is capable of doing. The movie contains snippets of many stories. It features the bubonic plague that ravaged colonial Lagos, Judicial system in colonial Lagos, Colonial Civil Service, Sapara Williams, Henry Carr, Iju Waterworks project, Alimotu Pelewura and the role of kings in the colonial system.

Judging a Nigerian made historical movie is difficult for it is a subgenre that is less explored because the system is set against it. However, The Herbert Macaulay Affair is a movie that should inspire more people as it shows that Nigerian history can be retold for a modern audience. It is a sign of similar movies that should come.

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