Lionheart is the first Netflix original movie produced in Nigeria and the directorial debut of Genevieve Nnaji. The film made headlines when the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) endorsed it, and it has since found a place in the hearts of Nigerians. In this piece, we reflect on some of the noteworthy elements in the film—elements that have made Nollywood the powerhouse it is today.
It tells the story of the Obiagus, whose family business, Lionheart Transport Company, is on the brink of bankruptcy. Adaeze, who is played by Nnaji, is the first daughter and the likely successor to her ailing father. This is in contrast to her brother, Obiora Obiagu, played by Phyno, who is more interested in pursuing his musical career.
The film features an ensemble of veteran actors including Pete Edochie, who plays Ernest Obiagu (Adaeze’s father), Nkem Owoh (Godswill Obiagu, Ernest’s younger brother), Onyeka Onwenu (Abigail Obiagu, Ernest’s wife), Kanayo O. Kanayo (Igwe Pascal, the antagonist), and Ngozi Ezeonu.
Lionheart revolves around Ernest Obiagu’s inability to run his company due to health issues. The plot thickens when Adaeze realises her uncle, Godswill, has been summoned by her father to salvage his company. This rescue mission then takes centre stage as we watch Godswill and Adaeze embark on an ambitious attempt to save the company from a 950-million-naira debt (more than two million dollars).
For the Obiagus, it is essentially about family, as the film shuns the usual narrative of brothers fighting over property. And, as Mrs. Obiagu remarks to Adaeze, “You do not come between brothers.” This time Nkem Owoh is not the evil uncle we are accustomed to; his role is more sophisticated in a way that makes the audience long for more of the multiple layers that make the actor a true movie star. As Adaeze struggles to come to terms with having him around, we are unable to hate him, despite being sympathetic towards her—which is the point of filmmaking; creating grey areas where necessary.
The film’s strongest qualities are its characterization of Adaeze as an Igbo woman who is not afraid to speak in front of men and its positive portrayal of her relentless ambition. In the first scene, the audience witnesses Adaeze negotiating confidently with arrogant agberos (bus park touts). And for most of the film, she maintains this confidence, even though she constantly faces the blatant misogyny that plagues women in Nigeria.
It also devises a reversal in gender roles—Adaeze as the successor of the family business and Obiora as the rebellious creative who is passionate about music. One wonders if Adaeze would have gotten her rightful place as heir if Obiora had been interested in the business. Or would it have sparked a rivalry between the siblings? Perhaps it would have fostered a tension similar to that between Adaeze and Samuel Akah (another top employee in the company, played by Kalu Ikeagwu), who selfishly backs out at the first sign of trouble by attempting to sell the company to Igwe Pascal.
Perhaps the most iconic rivalry in recent cinema is the clash between the characters of Pete Edochie and Kanayo O. Kanayo, which was way overdue and heavily nostalgic. In many ways, Kanayo is still the villain, maybe not in the “blood money” sense, but enough to compel the audience to recollect the era of iconic films like Billionaire’s Club. It also doesn’t help that his name “Pascal” rhymes with “Rascal,” an apparent indicator of his problematic character.
Lionheart is a beautiful ode to “old Nollywood,” as it tugs at the heartstrings of moviegoers with heavy nostalgia. We witness the actors who would normally play village elders become sophisticated board members in a transport company. We are also taken back to the early post-independence era with the accents of Pete Edochie and Onyeka Onwenu, which portray the hybrid identity that plagued most Nigerians in the colonial era. At every point in the film, Genevieve Nnaji attempts to remind us of how far we have come—as a country and as a film industry.
May 20, 2019