The Lincoln movie had been so hyped that it would have been a sin not to see it. It paraded big names: Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee-Jones. My interest was piqued, when, during the first United States presidential debate recently, Lincoln movie trailer came on TV just before the debate started, presumably to foreground the debate in the president’s favour. The similarity of the hard times which the 16th US President, Abraham Lincoln, had to negotiate, to contemporary times, was more than just déjà vu contrived. President Barack Obama, however, with his soporific performance at that debate, botched whatever effect it could have generated with only one lame reference to Lincoln.
The film was also important to me because I was interested in seeing how Spielberg would handle the issue of slavery, the US civil war and the Confederate. I was taught that Lincoln freed the slaves; I read some revisionist texts that countered Lincoln’s move as planked on altruism. Setting the slaves free was a political calculation against the Confederate and war expediency, the revisionists argued. And that is one of the troubles with history: It opens itself up to multiple interpretations. So this film, for me, was a historical argument extended.
The film was brilliant. I am a dupe for great dialogue in movies and Lincoln nailed it. Daniel Day-Lewis was, as always, outstanding. Lincoln portrayed a deeply humanistic Lincoln; he pushed the 13th Amendment to free the slaves out of a benevolent spirit. The politics of Lincoln is multi-layered; I quite enjoyed the way his legislature evoked the same sense of “bipartisan support” Obama and John Boehner have been chewing over relentlessly to save the US from going over the much-touted fiscal cliff. It’s also interesting how time and space influence filmic representation. If Spielberg had made this film 100 years ago, he probably would have spent the rest of his life dodging Confederacy bullets.
But then, there was something striking about Day-Lewis and notions of historical authenticity that sent me to the archives to search for how Nigerian leaders have been represented in movies. I tried to research into the politics of telling our stories of the past and how we “make” history. Up till the minute I am typing this, I have yet to find those movies. I started with Lord Frederick Lugard, bracketing off Nigeria’s history with his Amalgamation. When Nigerians talk about “our founding fathers” (as if we are Americans), we look in the direction of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and their generation, whereas, salutary and technically, our founding father is Lord Lugard; in a way, Nigeria is his ‘bastard child’ so he would have made an interesting subject for a historical drama.
My long search turned up nothing. Not only mine, but ably assisted by a few friends. Let me quickly say my search was not exhaustive. I didn’t leave every stone unturned so a part of me wanted to believe there are films –drama and documentary- made about him but I am the one who just could not find it. I turned to our “faux pas” founding fathers next. I began with Awolowo. Apart from news clips, interviews and similar materials, there was no movie made about him either. There was a news item from 2007 that says an “epic” film would be made by the National Association of Nigerian Theatre
Arts Practitioners on him but that was all. Nobody I contacted had any information about whether it had been made or not. On Balewa, I didn’t find more than a documentary (made by westerners) but I did find a documentary on Azikwe. The only library that had it was Indiana University, more than 800 miles away! The result was not different for people like Herbert Macaulay, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Margaret Ekpo, Gambo Sawaba (at least if they will no longer be on the N5,000 note, there should be stories told of their lives); Ken Saro-Wiwa and other heroes and anti- heroes.
I mailed some friends asking about historical films but they all drew a blank. We recalled a film about the late Gen. Sani Abacha but like many “home videos”, it was copiously innocent of ideas and bereft of narrative logic. The Abacha film did not transcend the street gossip we all know about his life and death. I don’t even want to talk about our past sport stars, our musicians, artistes and so on. There were some really good historical plays, many of them written by the Ola Rotimi generation but none, I found, made into films. It made me wonder what Nollywood has been doing all the while.
To be fair, some contemporary Nigerian filmmakers have upped the game but then, what is the point in being number two in the world when you are not creating/enhancing a collective memory? We are a country that forgets easily; we are a people disdainful of archival culture and, like the Achebe vs. Awo controversy showed us, history makes us uneasy. We would rather do without it and that is why we are stuck on one spot, repeating the same mistakes and learning nothing. Certain people who contributed to Nigeria’s gangrene return and act as national heroes because they know amnesia is our national strength.
What I am advocating here is not simply cultural imitation but more of deploying a popular medium like Nigerian films in building a national memory; to bring back the past so that we can understand the present. I understand that Obama even says he had learnt a few things from Lincoln. That’s how important and powerful history can be. Otherwise, Lugard would not have dumped colonial archives into the Atlantic Ocean. To borrow from the Igbo philosophy, history helps us to understand where the rain started beating us, why the rain persists, what constitutes rain and who the rainmakers are.
I’ll be the first to admit that making a historical film is not like eating Eko with Sere. It takes a lot of research and resources to recreate a period. It is far easier to make crappy films like BlackBerry Babes, for instance, than make a film on Aba Women’s Riot. But then, it’s an agenda-setting challenge to Nollywood. They have a choice either to continue to meet their audience’s tastes (or lack of it) or cultivate a higher one. And failure to do just that amounts to their eventual regression to irrelevance.