I was watching the first few episodes of Shanty Town when I realised why Chidi Mokeme has received deserved praise everywhere I turn. He was just as good in the 2016 production ’76 but he didn’t receive the hype this series has brought him. One reason is he was in a supporting role, a bigger reason is Netflix’s super brand power and superb marketing.
A subtler reason is my focus: In Shanty Town, he is waaaaay better than anything else the series has to offer. Miles better. It’s not a bad series — it is much better than a lot of Nollywood productions — but A film like ’76 was fine all round, so you couldn’t really single something or someone out for extreme praise. That film just deserved all-round praise for writing, directing, production design, and an ensemble cast delivering a flawless performance.
But with Shanty Town, the writing is okay but is never really great unless Scar is in the scene, the production design is remarkable, the cinematography is technically good but Nollywood still hasn’t used South Africa’s Jonathan Kovel the way his compatriot Jahmil Qubeka has used him in films like Of Good Report and Sew the Winter to My Skin. Everything else in the series has been done before, especially the theme of violence and corruption in high political places, which has been done better by Kemi Adetiba’s King of Boys.
Perhaps to differentiate themselves from that near Nollywood masterpiece, Shanty Town emphasises the grit of its setting. They have nudity and gore, which is hardly a bad idea. But, once again, in presenting both, the Nigerian lack of excellence rears its unfortunate head.
First, the gore. There is a scene in episode two featuring a murder. After the act, we are shown the dismembered head of the victim on asphalt. Unfortunately, it is quite clear that it is a doll’s head. Also, you can tell that that scene had several takes but nobody paid attention to continuity because you see Scar wipe his face (eerily with an axe!) and yet across two different shots, the blood on his face is in the same pattern just after it was wiped. This is not nit-picking; it is evidence of a lack of care in a pivotal scene. It is bringing shoddiness into a project that had the opportunity to be great.
As for the nude scene that is the source of its own controversy, the body being discussed clearly belongs to the lady in an early scene showing Scar receiving head. The body isn’t Nancy’s. The dimensions don’t match. Again, if care was taken, it won’t be so obvious and if the makers weren’t too eager to be gritty, they would cut out shots they couldn’t deliver competently. And this is what is often maddening about Nollywood: These things, these scenes that show carelessness are not must-haves in the final projects. You get the feeling that, if mediocrity didn’t exist, Nollywood would have erected a lab just to just create it..
In this case, these badly delivered scenes are less than three minutes altogether. It won’t affect anything to take them out. Why not just do so? Why is our film industry so keen to show that its people are careless businessmen not meticulous artists and craftsmen?
It is the cinematic equivalent of a carpenter bringing a crappy sofa and asking the client to “manage it”, except that the carpenter can be compelled to redo the work. But with Nollywood and Netflix, there is no chance of a makeover or a refunded subscription fee. We don’t get to that extreme with Shanty Town but there are films on Netflix and at the cineplex that are excuses to cheat audiences of their cash.
The way I see it, if we had a credible TV/film award ceremony, Chidi Mokeme would be the sole Shanty Town nomination. Nothing else in the series comes close to his excellence. Which is bad for Nollywood — but extremely good for the man who used to be known as “GQ”. The rains are yet to come but we are firmly in Chidi season.