The ‘Bad Man’ and Society – a review of Kemi Adetiba’s film – ‘King of Boys: the Return of the King’
by Femi Olugbile
‘King of Boys’ is the title of a film written and produced by a young Nigerian writer and film maker -Kemi Adetiba. It was released in Lagos some time ago.
Watching the film on Netflix left a very powerful impression. The story is a credible yarn, unfolding with a crisp, effortless flow. The characters are authentic, and the language – a melange of Yoruba, English and pidgin blends perfectly.
Following on the original film, a series of seven installments has now been launched on Netflix. It is titled – yes, ‘King of Boys: the Return of the King’.
It has always been a matter occasioning moral ambivalence when a character who is an out and out villain is painted in literature or film in such profound human complexity that, in the eyes of the audience, he acquires a heroic status of sorts. It is the ultimate expression of moral collapse in society, surely, when even the most strait-laced, judgmental consumer of the artistic fare begins to cheer for a ‘hero’ who, by the normal rules of decent society, should be dead or safely behind bars.
In modern times, one of the prototypical hero-villains has been Don Corleone, ‘The Godfather’ of the book and film series that have provided untold hours of pleasure and hero worship to at least two generations of viewing and reading public all over the world. Priests, lawmen, dashing young men and frail old ladies are among millions of people who consider Don Corleone and his son and heir Michael, as well as some of the crooks and killers they gathered around them, as some of the most compelling characters they have ever encountered. People who live by the sword and disdain the normal laws of society are seen, not just as perverse sociopaths but as cerebral, calculating protagonists with their own set of laws which they enforce with a relentless, brutality efficiency. They are philosophical, even religious, showing a reverence and devotion to their own idea of God. Don Corleone’s people, like most of their Sicilian Italian countrymen, are devout Catholics who love their wives and children, and are devoted to their mothers. How they square their gory profession with their reverence for God can be illustrated by a scene where a hitman goes to kill a target inside a Church. There is a statue of the Madonna inside the Church. The hitman reverently and apologetically turns the face of the Madonna away, shoots his victim dead, then turns the face of the Madonna back the right way and mutters a prayer before making his exit. Psychiatrists have devoted great amounts of research time to the study of the criminal mind, but they have not been able to fathom why even they can become fascinated by such characters. There is a psychiatrist in Lagos who laces his conversation with profound philosophical quotes from the Corleones.
Eniola, ‘The King of Boys’ is an unlettered country girl who grows wise and hard amidst the most pernicious, most unforgiving rigours of crime-riddled life in a Lagos ghetto. The original ‘King of Boys’, ageing and befuddled by the passionate embrace of a beautiful young woman who stokes the embers of his waning masculinity, is played with great realism by veteran actor Jide Kosoko. He is acknowledged head of all the criminal gangs in that neck of the woods. Nothing happens without his say-so.
One thing leads to another, in a manner of speaking. A deathbed Nikkai seals a hasty marriage. The shy and illiterate little girl, now a beautiful femme fatale, inherits ‘the King’s’ wealth when he dies, but even more importantly, his mantle. Of course she has to prove her mettle and show she is worthy of sitting at the head of the table where killers and criminals gather regularly to talk business. She pulls it off with deadly aplomb.
In a manner reminiscent of Don Corleone, she dispenses favors to the aggrieved and downtrodden. On the dirt infested streets of the Lagos slums, she is open handed, ostentatiously interested in the most trivial details of the life of a commoner, and ‘blind to the colour of money’.
Kemi Adetiba, writer, producer and director of ‘The King of Boys’ and ‘The Return of the King’ has taken on a very ambitious project by creating such a powerful anti-hero and trying to make her credible and likable. Contemplating making a woman ‘King of Boys’ in a Nigerian society where even the criminal underworld is male dominated is a bold paean to the power and potential of women.
To complicate matters further, this ‘King’ is politically interested and deeply politically involved. Not content to be ‘the power behind the throne’, not content to be financier and enforcer for the shenanigans of political jobbers, ambitious for herself and eager to create a dynasty, nothing is off the table, including what looks like an impossibly long shot at the Governor’s office in Lagos.
Meanwhile she must not lose her grip on her underworld constituency, the real source of her power.
The series is a chance for Sola Sobowale, one of the most powerful character actors in Nollywood to show her force and range. By and large, she delivers, even if some may worry she’s sometimes overstated. There is impressive acting from Adesua Etomi -Wellington as the King’s daughter, and another young actor evokes pathos portraying a whistleblowing tyro journalist who is taken through a painful lesson in how, in the real world, ‘the truth is not enough’.
All in all, this is an exciting product from the Nigerian Film industry. The story line may be a bit of an overreach, but the excitement is real, and the portrayal is very professional. Even those who are no great admirers of ‘bad man’ heroes will find something to relate to in the display of the seamy underbelly of Nigerian politics.
The series is highly recommended to the viewing audience.