In an interview with film critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo on The Africa Report, Genevieve Nnaji mentioned two things she does not like about the current state of Nollywood: the lack of original Nigerian stories and the classification of the industry into New and Old Nollywood.
And in her directorial debut, Lionheart, she has told a story that is richly Nigerian – to be specific, richly Igbo – and also managed to address a few problems of what we now call new Nollywood while bridging the gap between it and Nollywood of yesteryears.
New Nollywood refers to the Nigerian film industry since the resurgence of cinemas in the country. Nigerian movies produced before this period were shot in locations across the country, with the south-east region featuring heavily.
But ever since the return to the big screens, the Lekki-Ikoyi bridge has been a constant feature in our cinemas. The eastern region has been grossly underrepresented and in Lionheart – shot in Enugu – it is once again in the conversation.
Lionheart is unabashedly Igbo. The cast members which includes veterans like Pete Edochie, Kanayo 0. Kanayo, Onyeka Onwenu, and Nkem Owoh are mostly Igbos. Half of the dialogue is in Igbo. The food, the music, and culture exhibited here are Igbo. It even explores how the Igbos view other Nigerian tribes from afar.
The movie follows the story of Adaeze Obiagu (Genevieve Nnaji), the apparent heir of her father ailing bus company – Lionheart. Her father, Chief Ernest Obiagu (Pete Edochie) is unable to carry on his CEO and MD of the company due to illness but instead of appointing his competent daughter (who has worked with him for 8 years) as interim CEO, he has overlooked her in favor of his incompetent brother, Godswill Obiagu (Nkem Owoh). Adaeze must now join hands with her uncle to save the company which is owing ₦950 billion.
To the average Igbo person, it will not come as a surprise that the competent, experienced Adaeze – a woman – has been overlooked for her feckless uncle.
It is hard to tell if Ms. Nnaji is trying to say more respect and trust to deliver should be given to the Igbo woman or if she is just trying to describe how competent Igbo women are often sidelined by the men in their life, including the ones that are “confident in their abilities.”
Which is why Genevieve’s character protested in a conversation with her mum (played by Onyeka Onwenu), who stated that her father has his reasons: “I bet those reasons will not exist if Obiora (her brother) is in my shoes.”
One of the film’s strong themes is the importance of family. In recent years, we have not seen a movie that explores an Igbo family the way Lionheart did. If you ever wondered what a typical Igbo family dinner is, that superb dinner scene featuring just the Obiagu’s is everything you need. Discussions range from advice on marriage to the Ada (the first daughter in an Igbo family) to career talk for the boys who seem to not know what to do with their lives.
Yinka Edward, known for his stellar work on movies such as 93 Days and October 1, is director of photography and he captures the essence of Enugu with a dusky hue which gives the movie a unique glow. It is commendable that not only is Enugu represented in the big screens but it is presented distinctly thanks to Yinka Edward’s brilliant, aesthetically-pleasing cinematography.
The only disappointment here is Lionheart will not be seen in cinemas by the bulk of those living in the Southeast region of the country as the film did not get a nationwide cinema release. And its Netflix release can only go as far since we have not fully embraced movie streaming in Nigeria, no thanks to poor infrastructure and expensive data plans.
But maybe Ms. Nnaji’s true intention is to take an authentic Nigerian story that showcases our culture and values to a global audience.
Lionheart is many things: a quality piece of cinema with solid, charismatic performances from different generations of Nollywood; but if there is something this film is, shamelessly, that will be a love letter to Eastern-Nigeria.