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Tolu Akinwole | Death “Bi Yi” Proud, Or Questions about Nollywood’s Portrayal of Social Tragedy

The title of this essay, “Death Bi Yi Proud,” does two things. The first is the orthographical play on the title of John Donne’s poem “Death Be Not Proud,” even if I have used the second person Early Modern English pronoun as if it were a singular pronoun. The point with that verbal rigmarole is that this essay is dedicated to the departed writer and film director, Biyi Bandele. On the other hand, I wanted to rework the title of John Donne’s poem to signal my departure from the tendency in literary and cultural studies to assign some literary conceit, some elaborate metaphor to our definitions and explanations of death. My choice of John Donne also derives from the formal characteristic of his poetry. He belonged to the group of English poets called metaphysical poets—poets who employ conceit, elaborate metaphors, in exploring their subjects. But I play on his title to indicate that, while it is crucial to pay philosophical attention to death and its ritual in the world as we know and live in it, it is equally necessary to turn attention at times to death—literal death. Now, to my intervention.

When Biyi Bandele’s adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s critically successful Death and the King’s Horseman as Ẹlẹṣin Ọba hit the theatres first and became available on Netflix later, I expected an overwhelming positive reception from most viewers of the film in Nigeria.  There are many things in its favor: its clear pictures, the cast’s stellar performance—even Odunlade Adekola, the boisterous, often-overreaching actor, was reined in. However, the film’s reception reveals the different taste of the two viewing publics that awaited it. The first, constituted by those familiar with the play written and staged. The second viewing public consists of those not familiar with Soyinka’s play or theory of tragedy. I am aware that these two broad groups could be further broken down into subgroups, but for the purpose of this essay, I keep it at these two. A profusion of reviews attended the release of the film, and of these, Tade Ipadeola’s strikes me as among the most erudite and therefore representative of the first viewing public. Award-winning poet and literature enthusiast, Ipadeola is no stranger to Soyinka’s work nor is he unfamiliar with Biyi Bandele’s work. Ipadeola contemplated the ideas of responsibility, the necessity of death for social balance, and the intricacies of ritual. Ipadeola’s review usefully covers even the communication between Pilkings and Elesin at the end of the movie. The heft of the issue between both men transcended the use of words so much so that Pilkings understood Ẹlẹṣin’s agony regardless of the linguistic barrier between both interlocutors. (See also Rejoice Abutsa’s insightful reading of Biyi Bandele’s directorial project.)

That the story of the death of a court official could lead to philosophical considerations of responsibility renders the tenor of Ẹlẹṣin Ọba important. But such is the essence of death: it confronts the living with deep questions about life and its purpose. And it is true, to us literary and cultural studies scholars, that popular reaction to Ẹlẹṣin Ọba in Nigeria widely misses the poetic density of the story. But such popular reactions to the film point to an opportunity to reappraise popular poetics of death. Certainly, the philosophical affordances of death is not lost on the film’s audience. Consider the audience response to Anikulapo, another film that uses death to contemplate ideas of familial duty, loyalty, and communal responsibility. It seems to me that the audience is responding to the “senselessness” of the death in the filmic rendition of the play. My data for this is not from reviews but from my own non-literary acquaintances who just did not see any sense in the death of Olunde, Elesin’s England-educated son. They also do not see the reason why Ẹlẹṣin should die at all. Yes, there is an entire social history that explains this all to them. But my sympathy with my interlocutors causes me to reconsider the structures of feeling underlying their reaction to the film. This is why I depart from the mythopoetic reading of death favored in discussing Soyinka’s seminal play and its filmic rendition.

Let us remember that barely four months before the film’s release, a heartrending tragedy visited southern Nigeria when gunmen opened fire on worshipers at St. Francis Catholic Church in Ondo. In agonies that surpassed Ẹlẹṣin’s, parents watched their children die in their presence, and little children who hardly understood what was going on around them became orphaned. No sublime poetic expression could capture the despair and sense of àdánù—great existential loss—experienced by the victims of that attack. If that event seems too far removed from the film that it should not affect the reception of Ẹlẹṣin Ọba in some way, since after all Anikulapo was better received, as I have noted earlier, we need only remember that the audience reacts to the regenerative and retributive use of death in Anikulapo. Whereas the retributive and regenerative notions of death in films like Anikulapo are obvious, they are not so in Ẹlẹṣin Ọba.

This returns us to the idea that death is a familiar idea to viewers of Ẹlẹṣin Ọba outside of the academia. We should therefore not discountenance their reaction to the film as incapable of appreciating the sublime. How about we read that tepid reception of the film as an invitation to invent new and urgent registers for reconsidering the visceral tragedies we live by? This may be a call for articulating the everyday corporeal and social deaths ongoing in postcolonial Africa, so that we may register Ẹlẹṣin’sdeath in ways that make room for discussing such other deaths as the Ondo massacre.

Let me be clear. I am not against the mythopoetic reading of Ẹlẹṣin Ọba, in fact that is the mode of reading that unpacks the density of Soyinka’s theory of tragedy—a point I made in an earlier essay. I am urging instead a new frame for considering popular reception of the film. And perhaps it is about time to begin to think decisively of ways of representing the shades of death represented in so-called Old and New Nollywood. Old Nollywood gave us a variety which included deaths for money (for example, see Living in Bondage and Billionaires Club) and New Nollywood seems obsessed with portraying death as a spatial marker and as a metaphor for social death (for example, Shanty Town and Oloture). In a nutshell, the question is: how do a people living amidst ongoing social tragedy talk about death? How do those enmeshed in the tragedy tell death to not be proud and truly mean it?


Image: MS Co-Pilot AI

Tolu Akinwole
Tolu Akinwole
Tolulope “Tolu” Akinwole, PhD, is Assistant Professor of English at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where he teaches African literatures and cultures. He curates DiaCrtique, a series of interventions in African and African diaspora literatures and cultures. His writings have been published by Kalahari Review, Africainwords and other literary outlets. He is co-editor of the poetry anthology, Our Legacy of Madness.

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