BY NOAH TSIKA
Nollywood fans are currently abuzz with the news that Funke Akindele‘s name is (if her IMDb page is any indication) officially attached to the upcoming entry in Marvel Studios‘ Avengers franchise. Akindele, who made her screen debut over 20 years ago, as Bisi in the television program I Need to Know, might seem a somewhat unlikely choice for a Hollywood superhero franchise. Her most famous character, Jenifa, is a classic comic creation that turns 10 years old this year. Introduced in the 2008 Muhydeen S. Ayinde film that bears her name (and that Akindele wrote), Jenifa is a high-spirited, guileless “village girl” who moves to bustling Lagos to attend university. In the first film in the Jenifa franchise, the character turns to prostitution in a desperate attempt to “fit in” with the campus “big girls.” (Memorably, she is inculcated with a lust for hustling by a character played by the great Eniola Badmus, who, in a cameo appearance, wears a T-shirt that reads, “I get prettier every day and I can’t wait until tomorrow!”) The “razz” Jenifa is diagnosed with HIV only to discover, in the record-breaking box-office smash The Return of Jenifa (2012), that she is in fact “free of disease.”
Akindele can currently be seen on the televisions series Jenifa’s Diary, an extension of the Jenifa franchise that Akindele developed in 2016. Jenifa’s Diary recapitulates the basic premise of the preceding films, as Jenifa moves from village to city, studies as UNILAG, and applies for a visa, hoping to travel to the United States. (The ending of The Return of Jenifa had promised just such a trip, as well as a jaunt to Jamaica that led Akindele to travel to that country in 2014, as she planned a Jenifa-in-Jamaica project that, unfortunately, never got off the ground.) Akindele’s uproariously funny Jenifa is, while widely beloved, hardly the stuff of which superhero movies are made. Of all major Nollywood stars, Akindele is perhaps the least associated with action films, but what she has achieved onscreen beyond the Jenifa franchise, in a stunning variety of roles, suggests that her capacious talents contain as-yet untapped elements.
In the summer of 2013, Akindele’s wide range as an actress inspired one fan to imagine her in the role of a superhero in a Marvel Studios franchise. For the annual Nollywood Movie Spoof contest (held on a number of social networking platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram), this fan submitted a Photoshopped image of Akindele in an Avengers parody entitled The Hafengers. (Other entries in the contest included a poster for Goodluck Jonathan: Boko Hunter, a takeoff on Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and one for a remake of Casino Royale, starring Van Vicker as James Bond). It is doubtful that anyone associated with the Avengers franchise actually saw this fan-produced parody. But it stands as an amusing, even inspiring reminder that the most fanciful of dreams may one day become Hollywood realities.
The ambition to match (and even surpass) the best of the West abounds in Nollywood, and is encoded in some of the industry’s self-representations: consider, for instance, the Oscars that sit atop the Nollywood producer’s desk in Niyi Akinmolayan‘s Falling (2015), signaling his successful integration into global cinematic circuits. These are not frivolous or fanciful aspirations, but rather reflect a desire to receive due recognition from (and, perhaps, to be actively included in) the foreign powerhouse that has effectively colonized Nigerian cinema screens since the 1940s (with, of course, a gap of about twenty years between the Second and Fourth Republics, following the 1981 decision of the Motion Picture Association of America to ban exports to Nigeria).
So far, only a handful of Nollywood stars have achieved anything like Funke Akindele’s inclusion in Avengers: Infinity War. Genevieve Nnaji, Wale Ojo, OC Ukeje, and Zack Orji appeared in the much-publicized British-Nigerian co-production Half of a Yellow Sun, alongside Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor. And I remember well the sheer joy of anticipating Omotola Jalade-Ekiende‘s appearance on the VH1 drama series Hit the Floor in the summer of 2013. The day of the broadcast, I hastened to find a cable-equipped television set, and I sat down, soup in hand, to watch what turned out to be a disappointingly fleeting cameo. But I was still seeing Omosexy on a major American television program; this was still, strictly speaking, a crossover achievement, one that I was thrilled to experience and eager to celebrate.
Fans are presently expressing similar sentiments on Twitter, noting that, even if Akindele’s Avengers appearance will be brief (as it almost certainly will be, given the many familiar characters competing for screen time), they will still greet it with great appreciation, and even awe. But as we take stock of Akindele’s victory, we need to consider how, exactly, Hollywood stands to benefit from it. With overseas markets becoming increasingly important to the industry, Hollywood has strategically embraced popular foreign performers. In many cases, the inclusion of such stars is a precondition of foreign financing as well as of foreign exhibition. Thus far, the American trade press has focused on efforts to appeal to Chinese audiences (and Chinese financiers) through the casting of Chinese performers (such as Xu Qing in 2012’s Looper). Funke Akindele’s casting in Avengers: Infinity Wars suggests that Hollywood is now willing to take Nigerian audiences seriously as a potential source of box-office revenue. It is, in other words, a vote of confidence in Nigerians as a target market. For while Nigeria still has far too few theater screens to be a decisive factor in an American film’s overseas success, Hollywood is increasingly having to look for profits wherever they can be found.
In the case of Nigeria, these profits may need to be carefully cultivated. They are certainly not guaranteed. In the multiplexes, Omoni Oboli‘s Wives on Strike: The Revolution has been consistently outperforming another hotly anticipated sequel, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. (Apparently, the latter film’s inclusion of London-born John Adedayo B. Adegboyega, better known as John Boyega, is not enough to drive Nigerians to the box office.) When a Nollywood film outsells Star Wars, as Wives on Strike has done, that is a cause for celebration. With Nollywood films continuing to compete with Hollywood for Nigerian screen space, we should properly appreciate Oboli’s victory, but we should also remain wary of Hollywood’s efforts to further overtake the local theatrical film scene. However happy we may be about Funke Akindele’s casting in Avengers: Infinity Wars, we need to be skeptical of the motivations of Marvel Studios, the film’s producer, and of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, its distributor, whose designs on the Nigerian market are only now coming into view.
UPDATE: Funke Akindele’s name has been removed from the film’s IMdb page.