Nigeria’s booming film industry, Nollywood, ranks second highest in global film production (nestled between India’s Bollywood and America’s Hollywood), and its actors are now being sought by the higher paying US studios. This new development brings with it the need for complex conversations about gender, sexuality, culture, and the lure of money.
Kicking off these discussions is Omoni Oboli, a prominent actress who recently refused a leading role in a film that would have paid her half a million dollars. When Oboli found out her character would have three completely nude scenes in which she had sex with three different men, she asked the producer to modify what was shown on screen. The producer refused to alter the script, and Oboli walked away from the project.
“It is embarrassing that the outside world still thinks that with a fat big pay, you could just bend down and do any trash. I made it known to him that in my culture, you are only subjected to your husband…I don’t believe actresses in Nigeria have gone so low to get this kind of pay, but there are some who believe that acting nude can help them get a house in VGC or Lekki…You might be seen flocking around the big and mighty with the cash you got for being nude, but remember a time comes when a child of yours, unfortunately, may stumble on such films. What reasons are you going to give to him or her?” Oboli told the Saturday Tribune.
Okay, I can get down with that, to some degree. Some actresses are cool with commodified sexuality, though Oboli seems concerned that the moral price she would have to pay outweighs the actual dollar amount, and that kind of resolve is to be admired. What I find problematic is Oboli’s statement that the role is “trash” because the sentiment places a negative judgment on the actress who does choose to take this role, and that stigma is unfair. Furthermore, the paternalistic statement of Oboli’s manager, Gilda Amata, made me cringe: “We are happy that [Oboli] turned down the offer that could have turned her into something else. We are proud of her and the protection of her womanhood.”
In this view ‘womanhood’ is wrapped up with an appearance of chastity, the idea that sex for ‘real’ women shouldn’t be overtly depicted nor should ‘real’ women be having sex with multiple partners. Model, actress, and director Bukky Amos made her contradictory feelings clear: “Omoni has the right to her decision, but if another Nollywood actress accepts the role, such actress should not be tagged irresponsible or immoral…Africans have got cultural based beliefs, no doubt about it, but the movie we are talking about here is Hollywood, and not Nollywood movie.” What Amos seems to be saying is that so long as the film is produced by an American film studio, it’s okay for Nigerian actresses to shed their cultural objections, which is an interesting view.
Others criticize Nollywood for its one-dimensional depiction of Africa, while also not letting Hollywood completely off the hook for its own simplistic, stereotyped, and homogenous version of the continent. The hope is that both film industries will diversify their characters and plots in order to show a more nuanced and realistic picture of life for African people. My hope is that people like Oboli and Amos will continue to push Nollywood into the global spotlight, and make these very necessary conversations more prominent throughout the world.