Lionheart: A Review
by Steph Brandhuber
May 4th, 2019
Most Westerners can easily name dozens of Hollywood blockbusters and can likely identify a Bollywood musical, if not its stars. But Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry, produces over 1,500 movies annually and generates billions of dollars, making it the country’s second largest employer after agriculture. It is also the second largest film industry in the world, after Bollywood in India. However, due to low production costs and outdated modes of distribution, Nollywood films have had a difficult time reaching audiences outside of Africa and its diaspora. Until now.
With the release of Lionheart, Netflix’s first original film from Nigeria, Nollywood is finally getting the chance to reach viewers on a global scale. It marks a huge step in the streaming platform’s mission to broaden its international and foreign language programming, and a giant leap in attracting larger audiences to world cinema. For many, Lionheart will be their first introduction to both Nollywood films and Genevieve Nnaji, one of Nigeria’s biggest film stars. With more than 100 credits to her name, Nnaji has long been a beloved actress of African cinema. She now takes on the role of director with Lionheart, a charming story about family, perseverance, and belief in oneself.
Adaeze (Nnaji) is an ambitious, driven executive at her father’s successful transport services company, heading up logistics as well as the everyday disputes and complaints that arise. Despite being both capable and strong, she faces the all-too-familiar problem of having to constantly prove herself in a male-dominated business. When her father suffers a non-fatal heart attack during a pitch meeting, Adaeze assumes she will be the one to take over the company in his absence. However, her uncle Godswill (Nkem Owoh) is appointed as acting head instead. Before she can wrap her head around the apparent sexism at play, she and her uncle discover that her father has been sinking the company into mountains of debt, and they must pair up, odd-couple style, to rescue the company from ruin and save the family business.
Though Lionheart’s plot is somewhat formulaic, it certainly makes up for its simple narrative in spirit and authenticity. The cast, which is predominately made up of Nollywood veterans, does an admirable job of mixing dramatic tension with humor. Nnaji, with her quiet yet powerful portrayal of a woman battling the societal and financial odds stacked against her, clearly stands out.
What also becomes apparent very quickly is how much love Nnaji has for Nigeria and its people. Lionheart swells with the beauty of, and pride for, Nigerian culture, from the Igbo dialogue to the sweeping shots of Nigeria’s varied landscape. Far from the images of arid, barren Africa we’re so often given in Western films, the film emphasizes the beauty and diversity of the country and hones in on the wonderful everyday-ness of Nigerians’ lives. A scene in which Adaeze’s family sits down for a meal together is particularly poignant not only for its funny and touching earnestness, but also for its joyful celebration of how important family is to Igbo culture.
While the emphasis on family gives Lionheart a wholesomeness and a comfort that many viewers will be drawn to, it is the message of female empowerment that leaves the biggest impression on the viewer. Centering the narrative on a female protagonist, especially one who is unmarried and career-orientated, is a notable departure from Nollywood’s more traditional fare, where the men often steal the limelight. Women make up the largest viewership of films in Nigeria, and yet the female characters they are offered tend to be homemakers and mothers, seldom leaving the traditional, domesticated world they are culturally tied to. The fact that Lionheart focuses on a woman who is an aspiring CEO, and depicts her family encouraging her in her endeavors is nothing short of ground-breaking.
While Lionheart’s pacing and plotline might plod along rather predictably at times, its honest performances and unwavering commitment to positivity make it a warm, enjoyable watch and an easy introduction to the world of Nollywood. Nnaji’s success here lies in her globally-minded filmmaking, both outward-looking and comfortably familiar. Netflix has allowed this pioneering director to address the representation of African women on screen, and hopefully this is just the beginning for a new era of Nollywood films to be ushered onto the global stage. ❖