After Lionheart, Genevieve Nnaji’s future as a director is bright

Genevieve Nnaji at the Africa Magic Igbo launch in Enugu

If ever Nigeria had a sweetheart, it was Genevieve Nnaji. She has enjoyed a glowing career in Nollywood as an actress and earned a special place in the hearts of thousands of Nigerians. But in 2015, things did not quite go to plan when she co-produced “Road to Yesterday.”

“Road to Yesterday” wasn’t the usual Nollywood film, when you consider the use of flashbacks. But that isn’t why the movie wasn’t well received. Opinions were polarized but there was a general consensus on the pacing. The movie was too slow and you could literally count the number of times Victoria said, ‘Izu we have to talk.’ The lack of background music didn’t help too. Moviegoers said she should have known better. It is Genevieve, after all. Despite the criticisms, “Road to Yesterday” scooped the award for Best West African Film at the 2016 Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards (AMVCA). The award displeased some industry observers.

Fast forward to 2018, Nnaji has stolen our hearts again with her directorial debut, “Lionheart.” It is a comedy and Netflix’s first original film from Nigeria. Though a simple story with a predictable plot, Nigerians world over are loving the film for promoting family values, team work and culture.

The Netflix original tells the story of the Obiagu family. Chief Ernest Obiagu (Pete Edochie) chairman and managing director (MD) of Lionheart Transport suddenly falls ill. So he invites his brother Godswill (Nkem Owoh) to sit in for him. Chief Obiagu introduced Godswill as ‘the MD of our Owerri headquarters.’ Oops! How many MDs does a company without subsidiaries have? Secondly, if Owerri is a head office, then wha i’s Enugu where the MD sits? We are guessing the scriptwriter meant Owerri branch.

Anyway, Godswill’s welcome party is a visit from external auditors. The external auditors inform him and Adaeze (Nnaji) that Lionheart Transport needs to pay-up bank loan within 30 days or the Obiagu’s would lose the company. Another error.

In reality, the external auditors report to the shareholders. It’s not their place to inform management that the company’s loan repayment deadline is at hand. It is the bank’s. And there would have been some prior warning. But in “Lionheart,” the bankers are sitting pretty while the auditors break the news. More so, the auditors meet with Godswill and Adaeze who’s Director of Logistics and Operations. For a company in a financial mess, it is shocking that the accountant didn’t feature in the entire 154 minutes runtime of the film – except for setting up meetings with bankers.

Adaeze who believes she should be her dad’s successor must put her disappointment behind her and work with her uncle Godswill to save the family business. Owoh is the proverbial elder who “sees sitting down, what a young man cannot see standing up.” He finds a solution quickly but when Adaeze does not buy his idea, he’s patient. He offers his support and continuously reminds Adaeze that they are a team until she sees the light one morning, after her usual run. But who goes for a run in the busy streets of Enugu?

After “Lionheart” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September,  Nnaji told CNN’s Richard Quest she believed Netflix acquired the film’s distribution rights because of it’s authenticity. “Lionheart” is as authentic as it gets. It is shot in Enugu, eastern Nigeria and the story is also appropriately situated within the transportation industry which Igbos have ruled for decades. Adaeze’s SUV and Lionheart buses are brands of Innoson Motors – a local car manufacturer. Nnaji also doesn’t paint Nigeria as perfect picture. The police station scene is a sad reality – scruffy cells manned by policemen who are easily swayed by a bribe. That goes for the motor park touts too.

Nnaji has proven time and time again that she is proud of her roots. So the cast of this film does not come as a surprise. It is a showcase of some of the best Igbo actors in Nollywood. She brings back some loved veterans namely, Chika Okpala of “New Masquerade” fame and Ngozi Ezeonu. And celebrated artistes, Peter Okoye of “Psquare” and Chibuzor Azubuike known by his stage name “Phyno” make their acting debut. The only person missing is Chinedu Okoli aka Flavour “N’abania.”

Nkem Owoh and Genevieve Nnaji in a scene from Lionheart

Owoh in his supporting lead role brings the extra zing to the movie. Even when he did not speak his expressions and gestures did. Onyeka Onwenu plays Abigail Obiagu. She is her children’s greatest cheerleader. She is in the studio with her son Obiora (Phyno) supporting his music career. At other times she gives Adaeze pep talks and tells her ‘you have your father’s business brains.’ Edochie also makes a big speech which followed the most heartwarming scene of the movie – an Obiagu family dinner. The conversation at the dinner table in Igbo is natural, relatable and music to our ears. And at some point, Obiora becomes the centre of the conversation. Obiora is a budding musician whose career hasn’t taken off. Regrettably, this character is becoming a Nollywood cliche. Seyi Shay played a similar character in “Lara and the Beat.” And Falz, in “Chief Daddy.”  Nollywood filmmakers need to be mindful of this.

However, we like how Sani Mu’azu is choosing his roles. After acting as the boss of an anti-corruption agency in “King of Boys” and a Sharia court judge in “Up North,” he plays Alhaji Hamza Maikano, a northern entrepreneur in “Lionheart.” Mu’azu’s conversation with Edochie in Hausa is a nice twist. It is so characteristically Nigerian. We light up when someone speaks our language and instantly embrace them. The cooperation between the north and the east also sends a positive message.

Nnaji works with Chinny Onwugbenu, Ishaya Bako, Emil B. Garuba and C.J Obasi to develop the screenplay. They did well portraying the Obiagu family togetherness. But there are too many gaps on the business front.

The Director of Engineering Services, Samuel Aka (Kalu Ikeagwu) proposes a Lionheart buyout to the board by its competitor, Igwe Pascal (Kanayo O. Kanayo) owner of IG Motors. On the day Chief Obiagu announced to the board that there will be no takeover, the natural move would be to first walk out Igwe Pascal. On the contrary, Igwe Pascal is given a copy of the contract with Lionheart Transport’s new shareholder as though he were a board member.

It is also interesting that Godswill who has worked with Chief Obiagu since Lionheart Transport was founded does not know who his main competitor is. How Onyinye (Jemima Osunde), Adaeze’s personal assistant’s dress was loose fitting on Nnaji is also questionable. As well as how she found Godswill after he strayed off at Arinze’s (Okoye) house. Lest we forget, in Nigeria, it is unlikely that Godswill would away so easily from the fraudster unharmed.

Nonetheless, you are enchanted by the crisp pictures and overlook these weak points. Cinematographer, Yinka Edward, outdid himself this time. From the drone shots to close-ups and lighting that blends with the tone and style of the film, “Lionheart” is a sight to behold.

Nnaji was honoured with the title, Eze Ada of Amuzu Nweafor in Imo State back in 2014. Her title translates to “queen of first daughters”. She lives up to her title with this movie. “Lionheart” is a great way to mark Nnaji’s 20th anniversary in Nollywood. And if this is what her directorial debut looks like, her future as a director is bright.

“Lionheart” is streaming on Netflix.

Image credit: BellaNaija

Directed by: Genevieve Nnaji

Produced by: Chinny Onwugbenu

Cast: Genevieve Nnaji, Nkem Owoh, Pete Edochie, Onyeka Onwenu,  Chika Okpala,Kalu Ikeagwu, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Ngozi Eneonu, Jemima Osunde, Peter Okoye (Psquare), Chibuzor Azubuike (Phyno)

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About the author

A lover of the arts who sees film and television through the eyes of the Nigerian viewer.