It was a pleasant surprise to see Joseph Benjamin on Netflix original, ‘Greenleaf’. Had apparently missed his 1 November Instagram announcement. Benjamin featured in ‘Greenleaf’ season 3, episode 10 titled, ‘The Promised Land’.
He plays Joseph Obi, the new accountant at Triumph Church, after Jacob Greenleaf (Lamman Rucker) fired his predecessor. Although a brief appearance in season 3, Nigerians at home and abroad are celebrating this “achievement” and here’s why.
In 2013, Chimamanda Adichie’s book, “Half of a Yellow Sun” was adapted into a film directed by Nigerian novelist, playwright and filmmaker, Biyi Bandele. “Half of a Yellow Sun” is based on happenings during Nigeria’s historic Biafra war and expectedly, it featured a largely Nigerian cast.
However, English actress Thandiwe “Thandi” Newton and Nigerian-British actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor played lead, Olanna and Odenigbo. And Ejiofor wasn’t Nigerian enough. Not because he didn’t speak with a Nigerian accent but because he wasn’t a Nollywood actor.
It was claimed that Nollywood had been robbed of a great opportunity to showcase its talents in a movie which caught global attention because beloved actors such as, Genevieve Nnaji, OC Ukeje, Onyeka Onwenu and Zack Orji, were relegated to supporting roles. Some questioned why Nnaji couldn’t have played Kainene, Olanna’s twin sister. Kainene, is one of the most captivating characters in “Half of a Yellow Sun,” but the role was played by American actress and singer, Anika Noni Rose. It displeased Nigerians.
The next year, Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for her performance in ’12 Years A Slave’. The award was an achievement for African film and television. It meant that a Nollywood star could one day dream of same. Nyong’o is a Kenyan woman who although born in Mexico, had her formative years and made her professional acting debut in Kenya. That Nyong’o was raised in Africa made all the difference. Despite being highly celebrated actors, Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo, John Gboyega and Nonso Anozie (Game of Thrones) carry the tag,’of African descent.’ More so, their achievements have had no direct impact on the Nigerian film and television industry.
Yet again, Nigerians got their hearts broken in 2015. Will Smith starred as Nigerian doctor, Bennet Omalu in “Concussion.” The film follows the true life story of Dr Omalu who discovered the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) brain degeneration suffered by professional American football players. Smith’s attempt to speak with a Nigerian accent enraged many Nigerians.
Hollywood really dont fuck w/Nigerians. They had Thandie Newton & Anika Noni Rose in Half of a Yellow Sun & now Will Smith— 🌳Nereyda (@TwittaHoney) September 1, 2015
Since Lupita’s rise to fame, Nigerians have longed for their own N’yongo. Nigerians looked forward to the day a Nollywood actor, bred in Nigeria, would be deemed worthy to feature in a Hollywood blockbuster. One whose bio reads; Nigerian actor (actress), not Nigerian-British actor or English actor of Nigerian descent. Benjamin fits this profile. He was born to Nigerian parents and schooled in Nigeria before his foray into film and television.
In recent years, Nollywood directors have also begun collaborating with Hollywood in order to get global recognition.
AY Makun’s “30 Days in Atlanta” cast well-known Hollywood actresses, Vivica A. Fox and Greenleaf matriarch, Lynn Whitfield. “93 Days” starred Danny Glover and Tim Reid – also in Greenleaf. These were good for publicity and box office ratings. But Benjamin in the cast of “Greenleaf” is a real morale boost, symbolising a developing local film industry that can nurture talents who are fit for the international stage like Nyong’o. It is a sliver of hope for an under-funded but ingenious industry.
So, Benjamin might not have put up an Oscar-worthy performance in “Greenleaf” or his role might not be groundbreaking like Netflix acquiring worldwide rights to Nnaji’s ‘Lionheart‘. But, he might be the conviction that foreign producers such as Ridley Scott (Concussion), Andrea Calderwood and Gail Egan (Half of a Yellow Sun) need that Nigerian actors can hold their own.