In 2009, while governors of central banks across the world raced to restore normalcy in the global economy threatened by a stock exchange meltdown, Genevieve Nnaji, Nigeria’s Nollywood diva, was being featured by Oprah Winfrey who described her as the ‘Julia Roberts’ of the African movie industry.
It is not the first iconic name in Hollywood that Nnaji is associated with. The international cable network, CNN in 2010, while introducing her as a guest, called her the “Angelina Jolie” of Nollywood. She has also been called the ‘Sharon Stone’ of Africa.
But there was a reason Oprah’s praise hit the sweet spot in Nnaji. It came at a time when Nollywood could only count on home movies to reach the world. A time when VCDs and terrestrial TV stations were the only routes actors could warm their way into viewers’ hearts. It didn’t matter that nearly 95 per cent of the VCDs were pirated. It was also the time the industry churned out more substandard movies with few quality ones and the only way actors could set themselves apart from the poor storylines was by playing their roles so well that the scripts didn’t matter.
There was no local movie that was on the big cinematic screens anywhere in the world. Hence, Oprah, a renowned talk show host, making Nnaji the first actress from Nollywood to be recognised on her show was a validation of quality for the industry globally notorious for churning out movies with record speed. Nnaji herself has featured in over 50 titles before the Oprah recognition.
Genevieve Nnaji, the 44-year-old actress from Mbaise, Imo State, is not an actress who does anything by chance. The screen diva who once played football and beat up boys as a young girl has always been deliberate.
Her global validation has since spurred her to get involved in building the quality of the industry that has defined her career trajectory.
This is why the announcement that she took the executive producer role in the upcoming movie “I Do Not Come To You By Chance” may not surprise people who have tracked Nnaji’s progress. The movie is scheduled as one of the movies to be shown at the Toronto Film Festival 2023. The festival is scheduled to be held from 7 to 17 September 2023.
“It’s been an extraordinary year for African cinemas on the international festival circuit, and that continues to be reflected in this year’s exciting line-up of 9 African titles (8 features and 1 short) representing 9 different countries, more so when you include the directors of African descent living and working in the diaspora (Ladj Ly, Noura El Hourch, Mehdi Fikri, Sally El Hosaini),” said Nataleah Hunter-Young, the TIff International Programmer for Africa and Arab West Asia.
The African contributions to the TIFF centrepiece programs include other noteworthy titles such as “Death of a Whistleblower” from South Africa, featuring Noxolo Dlamini; “Sira” from Burkina Faso; and “Banel & Adama” from Senegal.
Nnaji’s transition into the business side of movie-making has been deliberate. Ishaya Bako, screenwriter and director who worked with Nnaji on the ‘Road to Yesterday’ in 2015, said in a BBC interview that her rise to the top and rebirth as an independence producer could have also been spurred by an industry ban she was handed by film studios in 2004. The ban led Nnaji to produce a music album called One Logologo Line. Although the album did not do well, having tasted life as a producer, Nnaji will not let go until she fulfilled her dreams in 2015 with the movie Road to Yesterday, where she made her debut as a producer.
Read also: Highest-grossing Nollywood movies in August
“It made her realise there could be life behind the camera,” said Bako.
The decision to limit her projects was consciously made by Nnaji and her business partner Chinny Onwugbenu. In an interview with Ventures Africa, Chinny disclosed that the partners made a conscious decision not to take on more Nollywood projects, many of which they felt did not live up to the creative promise of Nigerian talent.
Up until 2009, her average movie project was 3 in a year. After 2009, it was reduced to two projects per year until 2012. After her lead role in Half of a Yellow Sun, a movie adaptation of the award-winning book authored by Chimamanda Adichie, her projects have been reduced to almost one in a year.
2018 was a historical year for Nnaji. She appeared in two movies including, ‘Lionheart’ as the lead character Adaeze and ‘Farming’ Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s autobiographical directorial debut where she starred alongside Kate Beckinsale, Damson Idris, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
She made her director debut that same year with Lionheart which will go on to become the first original movie produced by Netflix after it acquired the rights from the actress on 7 September 2018.
Netflix had previously licensed Nollywood movies including the romantic comedy ‘The Wedding Party’ as well as the crime thriller ‘October 1’, but only after both had been screened in local cinemas. Lionheart’s acquisition was another validation that Nollywood was being recognised for its focus on quality over quantity. Lionheart was Nnaji’s first movie to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
After Lionheart, Nnaji went out of the public eye for five years just to make a comeback with ‘I Do Not Come to You By Chance’ an adaptation of the novel of the same name written by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and published in 2009. It is Nnaji’s first role as an executive producer, indicating that the Nollywood icon is getting more involved in the business side and funding of movies.
Becoming active in the business side of movies for a lot of Nollywood superstars is becoming a full-time occupation. It is therefore likely that Nnaji intends to deepen her footprint in the movie business but she is taking meticulous steps to ensure the quality meets global best practices. This is probably why her movies are first premiered abroad before they are shown to audiences at home in Nigeria and Africa.
She was the first Nigerian debutant director and first ever to submit a movie, Lionheart, to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, best known as simply The Academy. Lionheart was submitted for the Best International Feature Film at the 2020 Oscars.
After the premiere of Lionheart at TIFF, Chinny Onwugbenu shared insights into the work ethics of her and Nnaji.
“The writing of Lionheart took over a year. It was hard but the biggest key was patience. A lot of people tried to rush us “When is Lionheart coming out?” Patience means money because the more you wait the more you are making money back. I think for filmmakers, I am grateful we waited because over time you learn and you build and you meet more people that are able to help you like Netflix and TIFF. you have to really foster your product and make sure it is the best product you can possibly put out. That is why we are here. In terms of production values, we worked with really efficient people from all over the world, mostly Nigerians in Europe. It was a learning experience for which we are very grateful and we are going to carry it into our next experience,” Onwugbenu said.
Lionheart was, however, rejected by The Academy because the movie clocks in at “just under 12 minutes of dialogue” in Igbo, a language that is native to southeastern Nigeria. It was a decision many people including Nnaji didn’t take very kindly.
While Nnaji took the Oscar snub rather well, she will be hoping to make amends and take another stab at the Oscars with the movie ‘I Do Not Come to You By Chance’.
“First of all, it is just knowing yourself and why you want to shoot. What kind of film do you want to shoot and why do you want to shoot that film? What message do you want to relate to people? That will definitely narrow down the message you are passing to people. And you have to keep it contained, I think that really helps mentally. It is really about growth,” Nnaji said in an interview at TIFF in 2018.
‘I Do Not Come to You By Chance’ has been generally well-received by critics and readers. Nwaubani is the first modern African writer to have an international book deal while living in her home country, Nigeria. I Do Not Come to You by Chance won the 2010 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in Africa.
Expectations are high concerning the premiere of the movie. Critics are also eager to see how Nnaji rectifies the language barrier that cost her her first Oscar application.