An exploration of queer representation and misrepresentation in Nollywood, jaded stereotypes and what the future of queer cinema in Nollywood could look like.
In a scene from Daniel Orhiari's 2018 psychological thriller Sylvia, Richard (Chris Attoh) and Obaro (Udoka Oyeka) are friends casually catching up while drinking at a bar. When Richard tells him that he's in love with a woman he's just met and intends to marry her, Obaro is relieved and chuckles. ''I was beginning to wonder, you know, if you were gay or something,'' he says. While Richard looks incredulous and rejects the notion, the scene devolves into both a commentary and cautionary tale about married gay men in Lagos sleeping with their houseboys, reinforcing the idea that homosexuality is synonymous with paedophilia.
The homophobia in the scene becomes truly apparent when the bartender, having heard their conversation, slips his phone number towards Obaro after Richard leaves. Although Obaro had told his friend he has nothing against gay people, he shows disdain towards the bartender and flees the bar. Queer representation may be non-existent in Nollywood, but pockets of homophobia like this have showed up in the works of overzealous filmmakers, as shown in Ramsey Nouah's Living in Bondage: Breaking Free (2019) where the male protagonist was assumed to be gay after he indicated interest in a woman.
Nollywood is a microcosm of the larger virulently homophobic Nigerian society, but queer cinema had somewhat thrived around the early 2000's before flatlining into oblivion. This era followed the home video boom that began in the '90s, and was marked by slightly changing attitudes–or curiosity–about sex and sexuality. Soft pornography was consumed in the form of magazines (Hints) and other variants, glossy booklets with hardcore images were openly sold in shops, depicting women engaging in sexual acts with men or with themselves, and video porn was widely available in public spaces.
"...queer cinema had somewhat thrived around the early 2000's before flatlining into oblivion."
Emotional Crack (2003), which portrayed two women in a relationship, was an outcome of such a sex-turgid atmosphere. Directed by Lancelot Imasuen, Emotional Crack was Nollywood's first attempt at having queerness central to a film's plot, offering a decently nuanced look at the affair between Dakore Egbuson-Akande's Camilla and Stephenie Okereke-Linus' Crystal. The internet memeing a still from the film and referring to a lesbian sex position couldn't have been funnier. Emotional Crack is not without its flaws though, parroting the ''sinful'' nature of homosexuality, but it was a commercial hit nonetheless.
Because of its success, filmmakers made queerness a recurring motif in their films, leading to a proliferation that appealed to audiences who found such concepts salacious or were merely bi-curious. Kabat Esosa Egbon's Beautiful Faces was released in 2004, a film about aggressive female campus cults. If Emotional Crack allowed a bit of complexity for its lesbian characters, Beautiful Faces stripped that away, portraying lesbians as dangerous predators.
It birthed queer characters as caricatures, one-dimensional props for amusement. Because these filmmakers weren't queer themselves, only making such films exploitatively, queer portrayals were grossly inaccurate and skewed towards longstanding biases. It was a push-and-pull device, fascinating audiences and repelling them at the same time. In Moses Ebere's Men in Love (2010), John Dumelo's character, Charles, refuses the advances of his business partner and friend Alex, played by the late Muna Obiekwe. He's then drugged and raped by Alex. The film wittingly establishes these events as a ''conversion'' process, because not long after Charles is furious with Alex for taking advantage of him, he softens and agrees to be Alex's lover.
"It birthed queer characters as caricatures, one-dimensional props for amusement."
Men in Love ticks all the odious, stereotypical boxes about gay men, debasing gay sexuality to harmful activities like rape and adult grooming, and allowing homophobia to run further deep. It is perhaps why these queer-themed films weren't banned. To the Censors Board, such films, while showing same-sex affection and sexual acts, had the power to enlighten the public about the dangers of homosexuality.
Desmond Elliot's In The Cupboard, released in 2011, had Ini Edo playing a closeted lesbian reduced to shock value. Queerness as the new frontier of Nollywood commercialism ran its course as the industry slowly pivoted towards cinema in the late 2000s. Independent filmmaking became the only way LGBT experiences could be told and represented, especially following the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act that was signed into law during former President Goodluck Jonathan's administration. Non-profit platforms like The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs) have pushed a media campaign for the rights of LGBT persons, through short films (Hell or High Water) and feature-length projects (We Don't Live Here Anymore).
In 2019, Funmi Iyanda's Walking With Shadows premiered at the BFI London Film Festival, an adaptation of Jude Dibia's 2005 groundbreaking novel about a gay man navigating a homophobic Nigeria. Not only are these films reconstructing the damage around the depiction of queerness in Nollywood, and not playing into harmful stereotypes, they have also laid the foundation of what could possibly be the second coming of queer cinema.
More recent, in fact, is Pamela Adie's evocative short film Ife released last year, a young-adult love story about two women's budding relationship. The film went on to premiere on a native streaming platform after a festival run.
Queer films in Nollywood today may be scarcely available, but blatant misrepresentations are now a thing of the past.