BY DEOYE FALADE
We just can’t stop talking about Fifty. Was it worth the hype? Was it the biggest film released in 2015? Will it usher in a hitherto unseen dawn in Nigerian film? Tons of questions abound and why not? It was more or less the most promoted movie last year as its PR machinery kept it in everyone’s minds and didn’t let up even after its release. Fifty, has the biggest box office premiere and while critics were not too cuddly, the movie went on to grab the highest in weekend box office earnings.
But I’m not just here to talk about Fifty? You can barely separate a film from its director and in this case, it’s Biyi Bandele. Not a stranger to the arts, Bandele is oft regarded as one of the most versatile artists out there – having been into radio, journalism, theatre, literature and film. For the most part, he’s known more for his novels, prowess as a playwright and most recently, film, with his directorial debut coming in 2013 with Half of a Yellow Sun.
I doubt if anyone can sneer at Bandele’s artistic credentials – he can pretty much hold his own anywhere. He’s handled two big-budget movies (each a commercial success in its own right) and pivotal television projects. He’s worked with big stars in Nigeria and can attract some of Hollywood’s finest.
However, I also doubt if I’m the only one skeptical about whether he’s truly arrived. Of course it’s too early to tell, Fifty is only his second feature film.
Like the one before it, Fifty, regardless of its commercial success, divides opinion. Few can justifiably gripe about how it was shot or how the main characters performed but there’s an underlying perception that its acceptance is more of a ‘you’ve gotta take the good with the bad’ thing.
It’s a pretty movie and as much as I want to avoid going this route, I can’t help but draw certain parallels between Fifty and Half of a Yellow Sun. HOAYS was a book adaptation of a love story during the Nigerian Civil War but for the most part it didn’t even feel like that. It’s like the movie’s saying “Nah, the war ain’t all that bad.” It’s a film about one of the darkest days in our nation’s history but it didn’t feel like that, not to a Nigerian. And this was why I concluded that the movie wasn’t made for us in the first place.
I’ll give the Fifty some deserved credit with how it didn’t shy away from exploring certain themes but there’s a feeling that the movie panders to a certain class of people. It seemed to be too eager to show a Nigeria the world scarcely sees. There are repeated shots of a particular bridge like it’s the best thing since the parting of the Red Sea. You can almost say that it’s a modern version of HOAYS about older women, without the politics and violence.
Also, inasmuch as Bandele succeeds in attracting top actors and actresses, casting choices have been unconvincing too. With HOAYS, it was the shoehorning of two non-Nigerians into a typical Igbo role. Of course the world wouldn’t notice but we did. In Fifty it’s with the four protagonists of whom with the exception of Ireti Doyle, none looked anything close to the age they were said to portray in the movie. It wasn’t believable and what’s the point if it isn’t?
Screenwriting also suffers a bit with two of Bandele’s films so far. With the fantastic source material for Half of a Yellow Sun, it still felt like something really important was missing. With Fifty, the revelation and resolution of the issue with Tola’s family secret was more of a let-down than a climax.
Still, Fifty got quite a lot of things right. The actors for the most part delivered the goods, the supporting cast turned up well, the conversations it would stir on faith versus logic, sex, divorce, inter-familial abuse, etc., were unabashedly approached unlike many Nigerian films. it was just that most of what it didn’t excel in were too obvious to easily overlook, just like…you guessed it.
So I wouldn’t really say Biyi Bandele finally got it right with Fifty. So far, it looks like he’s more occupied with a film’s aesthetic qualities and the thematic execution than with the story at its core. Surely, he will continue to bring big movies to light and tell new stories and I believe he’s on the way but with just two movies that for the most part flattered to deceive, I wouldn’t say he’s finally gotten it right.