Nigeria has become one of the latest major battlegrounds in the streaming wars. Both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have made sizeable moves into Africa’s most populous nation as they look to boost their subscribers, signing several deals with local producers and studios for Nollywood content.
Netflix recently unveiled its latest slate of originals from the continent that was busy with Nigerian projects (including a buzzy movie premiering in Toronto) just days after Amazon touted its first two Nigerian originals. But while industry eyes may be on activity within the country, Nollywood is about to have a milestone moment in U.K. cinemas.
Releasing Aug. 26, Black Mail, from Nigerian-born writer/director Obi Emelonye — a U.K. resident for almost three decades — is the filmmaker’s latest in a growing library of Nollywood projects he’s been making from the U.K. since 1999. That was just a few years before he turned his back on a career in law to focus fully on film.
But the London-based feature — centered on an actor and family man (Half of a Yellow Sun’s O.C. Ukeje) whose private life is used against him by a ruthless Russian criminal gang, and based on a very real email Emelonye received himself — marks a historic first. With a wide release across 100 U.K. cinema screens and made for just $100,000, Black Mail becomes the biggest ever release by an independently produced and distributed Black British film to date.
As the director explains to The Hollywood Reporter, the achievement may seem like something to be celebrated. But it’s a success that will only be short-lived if it doesn’t help inspire further diverse storytelling by giving British cinemas the impetus to open up this window of opportunity even wider in future.
Black Mail is a “token”, he acknowledges, but a token that could mean so much more. And as Emelonye — who describes himself as a “halfway house” between Nigeria and the U.K. — reveals, it’s a token that’s here, in part, thanks to his soccer skills.
You don’t hear of many Nollywood films hitting U.K. cinemas in this way. What’s the story behind Black Mail?
The story, I would say, started in 2002, when I had my first theatrical release for a film called Echoes of War. It was released by Picturehouse Cinemas. It didn’t make any money, but it was an eye-opener. It showed me what was possible in terms of a theatrical release and that, while you could enjoy the kudos, there was more to it than just telling everyone you have a film in the cinema — they have to go and see it! So that was a huge learning curve for me and something that I that I’ve carried through subsequently, especially in 2011, when I released the film The Mirror Boy. This was released exclusively in Odeon across about 25 cinemas and did better, about £200,000 ($236,000) over a three-week period, which for a small independent film with no budget at all, is a great thing. So my journey has been incremental. The year after The Mirror Boy, I released a film called Last Flight to Abuja, which was also in another 25 cinemas. Since 2013, I haven’t had a theatrical release in the U.K., but in that time I’ve been preparing myself for the next phase of my career as a filmmaker. I’ve been lecturing in film [at the University of Huddersfield], and have kind of evolved to be able to make something like Black Mail. Everything has its time. And I believe the time has come for Black Mail and the time has come for a certain level of diversity and storytelling in U.K. cinemas, and I’m very proud to be at the forefront of that.
Who’s releasing Black Mail?
Evrit Films, the same company responsible for releasing The Mirror Boy. They’ve been plugging away in the shadows trying to promote urban Black films in mainstream U.K. cinemas, but there’s a problem that is institutional in that the cinema establishment needs a lot of persuasions to open the window. But it’s not simply based on prejudice, it’s on the commercial realities. I think there’s been a scarcity of projects that tick the right boxes. It’s not just about having access, it’s about making the access work and deserving the access. I think Black Mail coming at this time, when that window is open again, it’s like, OK, let’s see what you can do. The onus is on me, and everyone involved who wants diversity in U.K. cinemas to support the film.
There’s been a lot of talk about how post-pandemic, box offices have been dominated by tentpole features and there hasn’t been much space for smaller indie productions in cinemas. Where has this window come from?
I would say there’s a confluence of circumstances that have led to this: the Black Lives Matter movement, the democratization of storytelling, more diversity from the likes of the BBC and Channel 4, and the deliberate effort — like positive discrimination — to catch up with diversity. I think in this whole cosmos, having a film like Black Mail come out when cinemas aren’t programming 10,000 blockbusters in this period, they’re saying “OK, we have a small window, let’s see what you do with it.” So it becomes a token. But that token could mean more if we can make that token work. That’s why I’m screaming and shouting to anyone who cares to listen.
I understand that Black Mail is going on 100 screens, which makes it the widest release for a Black independent British film. Is that right?
That’s correct, although my dad would ask how much is it worth! It’s a great achievement on paper. But what I want is to make this slight opportunity work, so in six months’ time or in two years’ time there’ll be another film opening in 300 cinemas off the back of this. Unless that happens, whatever kudos we get from this particular project, is going to be short-lived. The aim is that we created a more conducive environment for independent stories to emerge. I guess I would pay off my debts if this is successful, but what is more important is that the young boy or girl studying filmmaking, all those creative people who have ideas of bringing stories to the world, are encouraged and inspired by this success. So I’m very small in the scheme of things.
You’re going to have to excuse my ignorance here, but while I’ve written about Nollywood before, I’ve never written about Nollywood directors making Nollywood films in the U.K. Are there several of you doing this?
I was talking to someone the other day and I said, “Actually, there’s no place called Nollywood.” It has no geographical borders. Nollywood is a bunch of independent artisanal filmmakers struggling to make a living, telling stories and selling those stories to whoever wants to pay for them. So I live in the U.K. I live in Chelsea and I’ve lived here for 29 years. But I consider myself a teller of African stories. And because I’m Nigerian, I identify with Nollywood. In fact, when I got a job as a lecturer in filmmaking, it wasn’t because I’d worked for the BBC. It was because I’d made Nollywood films. Identity is a fleeting phenomenon. One minute I’m Nigerian. Next, I’m a citizen of the world. And the next, I’m very British. But even though I live here, most of my projects are made in Nigeria. So I’ve been making films in the U.K. — trying to make Nollywood films in the U.K. — since 1999. But in answer to your question, there are a few of us making films and trying to tell stories that resonate in those two worlds.
Given the major push from both Amazon and Netflix into Nigeria, I’m surprised that you haven’t already been signed up to a deal and Black Mail is heading to cinemas rather than a streaming platform. Have they been in touch with you?
You’re right. Nigeria has become the next frontier for streamers. I hear that Disney+ and HBO Max are both coming. It has to do with the population. It’s a numbers game, and also disposable income, for which Nigeria is growing. I would say that my relationship with the streaming platforms isn’t bad considering I’m a halfway house between the U.K. and Nigeria. The very first bouquet of Nigerian films that Netflix bought in 2014 included one of mine, and they later bought my TV series Crazy Lovely Cool, which they recently renewed, and they have The Mirror Boy and Last Flight to Abuja. At the moment, I have five projects on Netflix, while Amazon has the rights to Badamasi, the biopic I made of the former Nigerian president. So you could say, while I haven’t progressed to making originals with them, I think it’s a matter of time. When they come to a territory like Nigeria, they will first exhaust the people that are in front of them, and then will ask, are there any more? Then someone will say, “Oh, there’s this guy in the U.K., please call him.” So I know that being in the diaspora gives me a disadvantage. But I know at some point the pendulum will swing when they’ve exhausted what’s already there and are looking for diversity of ideas and also what we can bring to the table, which is the ability to tell stories that the average Nigerian cannot tell.
Did I read somewhere that you used to be a professional soccer player?
I actually came to the U.K. to play football when I was 26 — I came for trials with Charlton Athletic and West Ham United. I was a nifty attacking midfielder! They used to call me Cantona. I still play at 55.
So soccer’s loss is cinema’s gain?
I hope so! Because before I left for the U.K, I also played for the Nigerian Under-21s. I was invited to the camp. When people see photos from that era and see people I’m in the photograph with, they say, “Oh, you played with that guy!” But that guy is gone now. He’s in the past. But I’m still here, I’m still relevant. Filmmaking is a better choice because it has no age restrictions.