The subversive politics of Gangs of Lagos [OPINION]

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By Abimbola Adelakun

The Nigerian Video and Film Censors Board Executive Director Adedayo Thomas said their agency is not taking any censorious action against Gangs of Lagos, a film directed by Jade Osiberu and streaming on Amazon Prime, because the law does not empower them to regulate online content. When I read that, I could not help but be grateful for Web 2.0. Thank God for streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon! These platforms have expanded the options of artists in Nigeria beyond the reach of bowdlerizers of imagination like the “censors board”! Imagine we still live in the age where agencies like NVFCB, comprising civil servants who have probably not read a single book on artistic interpretation to the end, still have the power to proscribe creative expression. Only God knows how many artistic initiatives died in their offices!

Adedayo also noted a pending bill before the National Assembly that will empower them to “regulate” films released online. This desperate will to “regulate,” a hangover from the military era, is perhaps the biggest problem of contemporary Nigeria. From energy to the national currency, films, news (media), and social media, we are obsessed with hammering the nail of bureaucracy into every sphere of life. Our regulate-or-die mentality frequently subjects worthy initiatives to the whims of witless politicians and their enforcers—humourless bureaucrats in stuffy offices—who bring down their headmaster’s red pen on everything. I have said it before and will repeat it for free: agencies like NFVCB (and even the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission) need to rethink their relevance in an age of liberalised and globalised media.

Since its release, Gangs of Lagos has generated some controversy. Lagos Island indigenes where the story is domiciled see the representation of their society as uncomplimentary. Apart from the numbing violence in several scenes, they also took umbrage at the association of their Èyò masquerade with vice. The pushback by the communities is understandable. Minority religion practitioners are typically sensitive to portrayals of their sacred symbols in popular art. If they stay silent, misrepresentation can become definitive. These Lagos Island indigenes reserve the right to criticise any art that depicts their culture in unflattering ways. The artist can take the feedback in good faith and incorporate such sensibility into future productions. Such organic exchange is far more productive for culture than a situation where a government-appointed administrator censors the output based on a prosaic idea of how art ought to function.

For those uncomfortable with the association of Lagos with violence, I think we need to remind ourselves that there are films and television dramas similarly titled Gangs of New York, Gangs of London, Gangs of Wassyepur, etc., out there in the world. Nobody died because their contents associated cities with vice, so trust that Lagos will survive this. When the same Nollywood made films depicting the lives of the Lagos one percent class (e.g., Bling Lagosians), nobody complained about their misrepresentation of the reality of poverty that characterises Lagos. As for those who insist that the Èyò masquerade should not have been associated with criminality, are there not real-life instances of people seizing the opportunity of masquerade festivals to strike at antagonists? I once witnessed an Èyò festival parade, and all kinds of frivolities—typical of festivals worldwide—went on by the side. The idea is not far-fetched.

Overall, the controversy about the portrayal of Èyò is not where the film’s irreverence even lies. Its impudence is its brazen politics.

First, the filmmakers did not seem ignorant of the significance of the mask and the ritual play of Adámú Òrìsà they appropriated. The whole idea of wearing a mask is to be able to do things while assuming another persona, and countless films have demonstrated this in various ways. What differentiates this instance is the sacredness of the symbols. While masking is not unique to Africans, the masquerade traditions in this part of the world revolve around mythical beliefs about death and life. Masquerade plays are borne of the belief that death is not the end of a person, and those who have gone ahead of us can still be summoned back to the earth to commune with the living. As such, ritual plays like masquerade festivals are generally employed to mediate the passage of the dead back into the world of the living.

In the chapter of Things Fall Apart that featured masquerades, Chinua Achebe noted that the masked spirits that were summoned to litigate in public trials represented the spirits of the community’s ancestors. As his narration mentioned, the people of Umuofia knew that those under the masks were the living elders of the community, but they still treated the egwugwu as their dead fathers who have returned.

To its credit, Gangs of Lagos also stated the original purposes to which the Adámú Òrìsà is employed: to mark the end of a king’s reign and usher in a new era. The ritual play links the rhythms of the cycles of life and death with the political traditions of the body politic. When the dead are summoned like that, it is not only to give a sense of closure to an era on which the sun has set but also to use the practices of visceral pleasures that typify the festival celebrations to herald a new beginning. Summoning the spirit of the ancestors, as a marker of both death and life, uses myths and rituals to burnish the essence that binds a community and which must subsist despite the changes that will inevitably occur when the death of a king brings an end to an era.
Not to give away the story for those yet to watch it, but this end that leads to fortuitous and productive genesis is the underlying—and subversive message—of the film. Those who have watched the film will note that the story revolved around a “king” whose interminable reign since 1999 had become oppressive. This king had been sucking the life out of the “Obalolas.” The potential of youths like Obalola, whose name promises a future where they too can aspire and eventually ascend to kingship, was serially quenched by this brutal leader (and his butchering henchmen) who jointly feed on and feed off their flesh.

So, how do you end the reign of this “king” who has all the mechanisms of power generation at his behest? You bring out the sacred symbol of Èyò to trigger the end of his era overdue for death. Yes, a king dies for the Adámú Òrìsà ritual play to be staged, but the Gangs of Lagos’ subversion of realistic details to generate new meanings is precisely what makes art powerful. I understand the grouse of Lagos Island indigenes who insist that Adámú Òrìsà could not have been staged for a commoner, but art need not stalk reality.

This is not the first time in recent times that a television drama will link the crime underworld of Lagos with its political establishment. We saw it in King of Boys. Although Shanty Town did not expressly indicate “Lagos,” cinema action spoke louder than words. The association was so strong that some observers conflated the infinity symbol on Bola Tinubu’s caps with the inscription on a similar cap worn by Chief Dacosta Fernandez, a drug lord and crime kingpin (played by Richard Mofe-Damijo). For some members of Lagos political establishment to throw a fit on this, Gangs of Lagos’ undisguised politics must have cut very close to the bone. If the film had been released before the 2023 elections.

Culled from The Punch

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