Though mainstream movie production in Nigeria predates the 1960s, the Nigerian movie industry, Nollywood, has been telling unique Nigerian stories since its formal inception in the hands of the first generation Nigerian filmmakers.
These filmmakers made movies for and by Nigerians at a time when Hollywood was their primary source of movie entertainment. As time progressed, the industry has thrived; growing and gaining mainstream acclaim.
However, the stories they tell have not evolved.
Most Nigerian movies contain themes and mirror values that are a microcosm of the characteristic, conservative Nigerian society. Harmful stereotypical depictions, the trivialisation of rape and domestic violence, stories that denigrate women and push moralistic misogynist views have come to be associated with Nollywood.
The stories they told, stereotypes they inspired and furthered imprinted on entire generations and the lingering effects of the harmful messages they promoted are still evident in Nigerian society today.
Helen Ukpabio, in her movies, spread religious propaganda that coincided with her beliefs in the occult and particularly, that children were witches and susceptible to demon possession. In her most popular movie, “End of the Wicked” (1999), child actors were shown to eat human flesh and murder their parents. Her religious organisation gained traction in Nigeria and West Africa and their ministry continues to promote this evil message and endanger the lives of children accused of witchcraft. Many Nigerians still believe that children can be witches and many Pentecostal churches also herald this narrative.
Nollywood movies are a primary promoter of patriarchy. They continue to reinforce the stereotype that the nuclear family unit is ideal and that any deviation from it is almost criminal. They do this by portraying reconciliation with abusive or cheating husbands and women marrying their rapists as a resolution of those issues and as a solution for the greater good. The message is that the supposed sanctity of marriage supersedes all, even the wellbeing and wishes of the woman.
The normalisation of women’s suffering and the portrayal of said suffering as justifiable and deserved because they did something or the other is rife in Nigerian media. ‘Rebellious women’, that is, women who work, have housekeepers, do not cater to their husbands, party, smoke and so on always meet disastrous ends.
Nollywood films frame men as victims in sexual relationships while the woman is depicted as a seductress. Of course, the man unwittingly falls for her wiles. In the 1997 film, “Out of Bounds” a seemingly pious Pastor was seduced by a desperate love-struck congregant. This pious priest was again overcome by another woman, of course, by no fault of his.
Abortion is always followed by infertility, “barrenness” as they enthusiastically declare. There are always countless repercussions for ‘promiscuous’ women but hardly any for men. Women who are not in a nurturing role or some sort of proximity to men as long-suffering mothers, wives and girlfriends are typically demonised or their story centred on their inability to find a husband or their great downfall.
In the 2013 film “Osuofia in Brazil”; Osuofia saw female students as part of the incentive of being a principal at a school. The movie casually depicts the abuse of underage girls and other women in the community. The old comedic movies that Nigerians love objectified women and trivialised violence against them.
The Nigerian movie industry spreads harmful stereotypes; the blundering, stuttering gateman, the evil stepmother, etc. The demonisation of mental illnesses is also common in their movies where mental illness is depicted as a punishment for evil deeds. Movies where people ‘confess’ their evil deeds and then are delivered of some illness create the impression that illnesses are caused by some personal flaw or wrongdoing of the person.
The quality of movies being made today has undoubtedly improved however, many of these harmful stereotypes and depictions are still present in new age Nigerian movies. Entertainment is the primary tool of propaganda and people retain what they see in the entertainment they consume consciously or subconsciously. It is irresponsible to continue to tell stories that cause harm and normalise violence.