To celebrate Lionheart's Oscar nomination, we take a look back at the celebrated Nigerian actress' most iconic roles and where to watch them.
It's certainly not blasphemy to say that Genevieve Nnaji is Nollywood's greatest export. Across the course of her career—which spans over 20 years—Nnaji has achieved everything an actor is supposed to and played just about every role you can think of. She emerged as a promising child actor in the 80s, won our hearts with her heartbreaking performance in Ijele and cemented her status as a star with the iconic Sharon Stone role. She then went on to rule the Nigerian film industry (and our hearts) for several years.
Last year, she added a cherry on the delicious cake that is her career with her directorial debut Lionheart, a sentimental drama with a feminist undertone. The film birthed many firsts for Nnaji and Nollywood: it is the first Netflix original Nigerian film and Nigeria's first submission to the Oscars.
Lionheart took Nnaji to Canada for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)—where it was nominated for the Grolsch People's Choice Award—and Morocco for the International Film Festival Marrakech. A deal with a Hollywood-based talent agency followed, and suddenly our not-so-hidden gem became the apple of the world's eyes.
To celebrate the actor and her standout career, OkayAfrica presents you with seven of her most memorable performances. Check them out below.
Ijele, the son of the gods and the most powerful man in Obiligwe, has eyes only for Oma. When she was sick, he traveled into the evil forest—where he wrestled whirlwind and crossed a river of fire—to find a cure for her. When the goddess of rain and the entire village try to force another bride on him, he refuses. As the passionate Oma, Nnaji delivers a performance that put her budding career on a pedestal.
Sharon Stone (2002)
Sharon Stone will be remembered as the star-making performance of Nnaji's career. She played the titular character, a conniving young beauty who thinks she is too pretty for one man. There are players and there is Sharon Stone—the greatest player ever in Nollywood. At the peak of her shenanigans, Sharon was engaged to three men at once: a young boy, Dallas; a military man, Tony; and a middle-aged man named Uche.
Blood Sisters (2003)
Despite her looks, Nnaji was never typecast as just "the pretty girl," because she convincingly portrayed a range of characters during the early stages of her career. In Blood Sister, she played her most memorable villainous role to date. Esther and Gloria are blood sisters, but Esther feels nothing but hatred for her elder sister. She is constantly threatened by her sister's better grades and luck with men. Her envy of Gloria pushes her to do something incredibly wicked.
The film is the first featuring Nnaji and Omotola Jalade, who played Gloria. Nnaji's searing performance as a wicked sister and stepmother and Jalade's embodiment of the good sister role birthed a rivalry between the two actresses (that existed only between their fans.)
Private Sin (2004)
Most of Nnaji's roles in the early 2000s required her to be sober and vivacious. Her characters often went from bubbly to lifeless at the drop of a dime and she always aced that transition. In Private Sin, she nails the dichotomy, once again, as Faith, a pastor's wife who leads a double life. In the church, she is a fierce worshipper, at home–she is a painfully cruel wife. Nnaji's charismatic performance as the sarcastic Faith has all her best qualities—she's charming, striking and dominating all in one.
Ijé: The Journey (2010)
After the vitriol that ran through Blood Sisters, it was only fair that the world got to witness another film in which Nnaji and Jalade played sisters that actually loved each other. In Ijé; the Journey, Nnaji's character Chioma leaves Nigeria for the United States to help her sister, Anya who's been accused of killing her husband. Just as she brilliantly acted a wicked sister, Nnaji aced the good sister role with another masterful performance—a reminder of her versatility.
After being somewhat absent from the big screen, Nnaji returned with Road to Yesterday, a sobering love story that follows an estranged couple who try to fix their marriage on a road trip. The flawless performance from Nnaji is the type we've have come to expect of her. This also marked the actress' first time acting as producer.
This Netflix Original is Nnaji's biggest and best film yet. Here she is a director, producer, co-writer, and star of the show. Her character, Adaeze is the most fitting (and competent) to replace her dad as the CEO of his bus company. But when an opportunity presents itself, she is overlooked for her feckless uncle, despite her impeccable track record. She, like most women, has to work even harder to prove herself worthy.
Adaeze may not be Nnaji's most challenging character, but it is one of the most important she has played thus far. Her performance is still striking as ever—simple but effective. The film's feminist undertone, rich display of Igbo culture, and comical elements ensured that a story about a hostile takeover remains enjoyable all the way through.