There’s excessive glamour in Nollywood today – so much so that any film that bucks the trend is called a classic.
King of Boys, Kemi Adetiba’s gangster picture, escaped Nollywood’s glamour, but it was more than a different story. Adetiba’s film is that rare audacious drama lacking in the industry’s blockbuster space. The film’s opening – a party involving rich Lagosians – almost extinguishes hope from its trailer until that chilling scene where Alhaja Eniola Salami dislodges someone’s face with a hammer, then nonchalantly discusses food while blood spills on the ground. You instantly understand the film: a dark drama about a dark woman inhabiting a dark world. Also, the character: people’s woman in the light, Laburu in the dark.
Salami’s duplicity is endearing. She loves her people and wants the best for them, but the same woman aids wicked politicians that impoverish them. She is a caring mother, a feminist sef –Adetiba ensured we saw her hatred for misogyny. Of course, her feminism is violent; she’s a thug of the worst kind. But, somehow, we root for her because the screenplay humanizes her. Or maybe because we share common enemies: Nigerian politicians.
King of Boys highlighted the complex relationship between Lagos gangs and state politics. (Election is won on the streets and by the streets.) Aare’s party remained in power because of Salami and The Table; the state allowed them to operate with minimal interference in return. It is also a film about the corruption of power. Salami has outgrown the streets and now wants the kind of power Aare and his kind wield – a pursuit that shows her insatiable thirst for power and also her naivety. Aare knows Salami’s political ascent threatens his sovereignty; she already owns the street, why give her more? Also, Nigerian politicians will never welcome a thug, no matter how refined or essential, at their table. A lesson she learns the hard way.
The sequel, King of Boys: The Return of the King, comes as a Netflix original series and happens five years after the original film ends. (The series format makes sense because of King of Boys’ expansive universe, and the small screen is suited to Adetiba’s soapy approach to gangster drama; she prefers melodrama and sticks with it for this sequel.)
Eniola Salami returns from the US, where she fled to in a bid to avoid prosecution, and immediately announces her intention to run for Governor. Unsurprisingly, much has changed. Aare is in prison, and a megalomaniac, Odudubariba, played by Charly Boy, leads the Table. There’s also a not-too-surprising enemy lurking in the shadows.
But the most critical changes lie within. She’s not the bubbling, confident woman we met in the original film; she grieves the death of her kids and feels alone – no friends, just more enemies. She’s also tired of fighting, but the same woman wants power. Her resolve to getting it diplomatically (because she’s running from violence and herself) isn’t working. She’s insulted and embarrassed by people who couldn’t look her directly in the eyes five years ago because she’s being nice. The younger Eniola reminds her to wake up at every chance, but she refuses until an old friend threatens her life. Then she remembers who she is: a street thug who will forever be seen as that, and then she acts accordingly.
The original film knew how to introduce characters. The hammer scene showed killing is routine to Salami; the scene at Aare’s house showed political power triumphs street power; the bite-the-table scene gave a sense of Makanaki’s brutality, and the way Adetiba built tension until that moment shocked you.
This series lacks such careful examination of characters and their traits. When we meet Odudubariba, the supposed villain, he’s punishing a member of the table gruesomely, but it is cartoonish and never bothers you. You get that the man is a sadist, but you don’t feel it. I remember how the crowd reacted during the hammer and bite-your-table scenes in cinema; that shock is sorely lacking here. So many things are lacking. The raw quality of the film has been replaced with glam, and maybe it is because this series is more political drama than gangster epic, but it doesn’t connect.
The moment that reintroduces Makanaki is gorgeous, Reminisce is bathed in colors, but that tone betrays the story. Why are there club lights in an uncompleted building in a gangster epic? It is almost like this sequel embraces the very ideas the original circumvented; it is too shiny and colorful for a story about the dark sides of power.
There’s also a heavy-handed approach in areas Adetiba excelled as writer and director in the first film. Young Eniola’s arc was terrific because it was a journey that gave you more of the character. We saw how she became the King of Boys and understood why she berated her older self. But in the series, the character is monotonous in a manner that suggests Adetiba wants to recreate moments like the powerful cell scene from the original. Instead, it made Toni Tones tedious.
With every shout reminding the older Eniola about herself, you want to remind Tones and Adetiba about their first outing and how it was powerful because it didn’t happen in every scene. There’s plenty to moan about, but one wonders why Adetiba didn’t build on the charm of the original film: its characters, their journeys and their inner struggles, the power tussle, as well as the shocking violence.