Yoruba epic films are suddenly everywhere again, I love it
After a long time in the wilderness, it's raining Yoruba epic films once again.
For the uninitiated, Ṣàngó is a Yoruba deity and is historically recognised as the third Alaafin of the old Oyo Empire. Considered one of the most powerful Yoruba rulers ever, a film about him makes sense, and Obafemi Lasode produced and directed one that he released in 1997.
Ṣàngó remains one for the ages, and watching it at a young age is one of the most significant reasons I fell in love with Yoruba epic films.
When the titular character, played by the towering Wale Adebayo, scattered common grains on the ground and summoned spirits to help him achieve what sounded like an impossible task, I cheered.
In a battle scene later in the film, Ṣàngó turned grains into live bats that attacked his enemies and plucked out the eyes of his main adversary.
This was cinema.
Around the time of Ṣàngó's release, there were many more Yoruba epic films, especially ones touching historical characters, that made the rounds.
Adebayo Faleti's Baṣọ̀run Gáà is a dramatisation of the life of a real powerful kingmaker of the old Oyo Empire whose overbearing arrogance eventually led to his humiliating downfall.
A five-minute speech by the titular Gáà, played by the elegant David Ojedokun, explaining why he'd just ordered the elimination of yet another king bears striking resemblance to Roman senators justifying the brutal assassination of Julius Caesar to the masses to win them over and quell a revolt. Its simplicity is captivating and communicates what made the real Gáà the force of nature he was.
Jógunómí, about a prominent Oyo Empire warlord whose disobedience causes his anti-climatic death, is another one of the films that won much acclaim for the epic genre.
But perhaps the most hair-raising epic of its time is Ògbórí Ẹlẹ́mọ̀ṣọ́, about a brave powerful hunter who fights and conquers two evil villains threatening his people. The film features an exciting final battle that involves sensational acrobatics and a climactic beheading.
This was cinema. This was the era of Yoruba epics.
The old Yoruba epic films had an appeal to them — they typically were a window into the sociopolitical history of the Yoruba people, a dramatic visual re-enactment of stories that had only ever existed as oral tales passed down from generation to generation.
More than being a vehicle for history, these films offered tons of entertainment with head-swelling praise-singing, fanciful boasts, profound cultural expressions, and low-budget battle set-pieces that featured duels won by audacity and colourful incantations, rather than guns and swords.
These films often centred on power struggles, essentially set up as a mirror of, and a cautionary tale for, the present, past and future of the Yoruba, or any human, civilisation. It's what made the appeal evergreen, and something you can still watch 30 years later with lessons that remain potent.
But like all eras, the time of the Yoruba epics started to fall when Nollywood drifted towards the 21st-century shine of cinemas. It was the age of high production standards and more complex stories that Yoruba epics couldn't immediately adapt to, forcing them into a corner.
In fact, for a time, the industry was shackled in an unending loop of comedy films because they were, apparently, the only viable path to commercial success for local productions in Nigeria. The yolk didn't start to break until the commercial success of non-comedies like The King of Boys and Living in Bondage: Breaking Free.
The mainstream Nollywood crowd is currently more accepting of political thrillers, action thrillers and high-budget dramas and the expansive playing field is what is now leaving enough room for the era of the Yoruba epic films to enjoy a revival.
King of Thieves, the story of a powerful bandit unleashing terror on a once-peaceful community, made a quiet entry into Nigerian cinemas in April 2022. By the end of its cinema run weeks later, it had made a whopping ₦320 million in ticket sales, currently the seventh highest-grossing Nollywood film of all time.
The Femi Adebayo film offered mainstream audiences something they hadn't seen for decades — a Yoruba spectacle that packed a punch and a much-improved production quality.
Four months later in September, Kunle Afolayan released his own traditional Yoruba epic, Aníkúlápó, on Netflix. The story of Sàró, who goes from a timid stranger in Oyo to a darkly arrogant mini-tyrant, after getting his taste of power, was very reminiscent of the corruption of power theme that made Yoruba epics such crowd-pleasers.
The film captivated audiences around the world enough that it was the most-watched non-English language film on Netflix with a cumulative 8.7 million hours of views in one week in early October.
King of Thieves and Aníkúlápó have their unimpressed critics who think the storytelling could have been better, but their wild mainstream success appears to be opening the door for Yoruba epics to enjoy another great run.
In July 2023, Kola Odunlade's Yoruba epic, titled Òrìṣà, landed in Nigerian cinemas on the same day as Barbie and Oppenheimer, two blockbuster Hollywood films that commanded feverish global attention. By the end of the first week, it grossed ₦40 million, the biggest opening for any Nollywood film in 2023, and even finished ahead of Oppenheimer.
This impressive run bodes well for the hopes of Adebayo's upcoming epic, Jagun Jagun, which is due for a Netflix release in August, and already set expectations high with a riotous trailer.
Afolayan also recently wrapped filming for the sequel of Aníkúlápó that’s a TV series, which was his original plan — but Netflix made him shoot it as a film first to be convinced that an epic was a good sell for the Nigerian audience.
There's also the fantastical reimagining of the story of Queen Mọrèmi Àjàsorò in Disney's Kizazi Moto series, an action-packed animated sci-fi anthology of African stories, released in July.
It feels like the age of Yoruba epic films again and a promise that the Nigerian audience will return to a time of quality storytelling, colourful incantations, fanciful spectacles and, hopefully, rich historical perspectives.
What's not to love?
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