Review of AMAA 2018 Nominees: Isoken

From a certain perspective, the film Isoken seeks to answer two questions:

1. How does a Nigerian woman choose her mate?
2. Can a Nigerian man win the game of love over an oyinbo in a romantic comedy?

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The answer to the first is: who the hell knows? The second answer is, well, let’s just say the white man has a head start.

Clark Gable romcom-ed his way to Hollywood history in It Happened One Night, a movie made as far back as 1934. (Also starring Claudette Colbert, it was the first film to win all 5 main awards at the Oscars.) Then there was Cary Grant’s romcom run from the 1940s through to the 1960s. More recently, British actor Hugh Grant stuttered into many hearts in the 1990s and 2000s.

By contrast, what do we have in Nollywood? Look away now: Nothing too fancy, just Kenneth Okonkwo, as Andy, killing the love-of-his-life Merit for money in 1992’s Living in Bondage.

Somewhere on the internet there is a Nigerian woman scoffing: SMH at romance and Nigerian men.

Isoken’s title character (played by Dakore Egbuson-Akande) is a 34 year old working woman who has committed that most criminal of sins: she is unmarried and isn’t even dating anyone. When we meet her, she is with family and friends, mostly female, and moments away from meeting Osaze, a suitor organised by her mother at a reception. She thinks it must be one of those horny cretins parents foist on their disgraceful spinster kids. But look, it is Joseph Benjamin! Her eyes light up.

Working with cinematographer Kunle Adejuyigbe, and using similar tasteful aesthetics as in her web series Gidi Up and Skinny Girl in Transit, Osiberu works several hues of wonder into the scene. She cuts between shots of their faces, which are made-up but not too much and surrounded by the fabulous colours of a rich Nigerian reception. Osaze conveys interest and a smidgen of smugness. Isoken conveys delight. It is instant chemistry. We have a match, folks.

But as lovely as the scene, it isn’t quite a meet-cute. Though Osaze turns out rich and ambitious, the film has refused to give him a big hand in that meeting. It is a match but the film withholds the magic. We soon find out why.

At a laundromat not long after, Isoken meets Kelvin, who, through some mischance, ends up with her underwear. He tries to give it to her quietly, but in the spirit of a true Nigerian woman, Isoken assumes he has other motives. The embarrassment of the episode leads her to make a phone call to a friend where she lets it slip that he’s cute. He’s of course within earshot when this happens. They will meet again. As meet-cute, Isoken and Kelvin have a fairly lengthy set-up. The film is invested in this one.

Kelvin is a white photographer. Osaze is a rich Nigerian businessman. For the classy debauched, the ideal thing would be a ménage à trois. For the wild, the occasional threesome would be welcome. But these are well adjusted citizens of the world. So in the interest of a potential monogamy, Osiberu takes the option of showing us how Isoken is treated by each man. She takes a keke with the photographer; she’s on a yacht with Osaze. She goes to a fancy dinner with the Nigerian; the American dances goofily with her.

This is fairly regular romcom styling. But before its last few cliched scenes, Isoken is so well-written and acted that for the most part, it escapes the genre’s restrictions and instead becomes a drama of the single life in a big city. The emphasis isn’t so much on the societal pressure of finding a husband but on what a soulmate, a companion, a friend might mean to a successful single woman living in a city.

Alas, the picture is incomplete, but in at least one area Osiberu’s film shows the secret life of women of a certain age: women around women they like are like girls forever. Some of the best scenes show Isoken and her friends laughing and gossiping. Sure, men come up several times in their talk, but the ease of female company is the essential thing. Among the actresses playing these friends, Funke Akindele and Lydia Forson shine. Damilola Adegbite, as the sole married friend in the group, is weak. You imagine stronger scenes of camaraderie in her absence.

For the men, Benjamin’s usual stolid acting works in his favour here. He’s an appealing amount of confidence and aloofness. His rival Marc Rhys as Kelvin is good in every scene, a far cry from the terrible white actors Nollywood has traditionally invested so much in acquiring.

Osiberu ignores the racial undercurrent in the film save for a melodramatic yelp towards end. She doesn’t quite let her viewers’ think of Kelvin as a white man in Africa with all the privilege (and so-so problems) that his skin attracts. But anyone who has been in or around an interracial relationship is aware of its tricky nature.

How easy, for instance, is it for a Nigerian photographer to convince a highflying woman to get into a sweltering keke under the Lagos sun when she has a car because he doesn’t have one himself? Again, Nigerian artists wearing ankara are some of the most mocked in the Lagos art scene; but Kelvin wears his “African outfits” with aplomb. The drinking spots Kelvin goes to don’t seem affordable on many a Nigerian photographer’s salary. And it is also no stretch to think there is a different dynamic of rivalry when courting men are of different races. Isoken is silent on all of these.

But of course, these would make up material for a different film. Isoken is an undisguised romcom, and is much better than the bulk of similar films from Nollywood. It wants the viewer to leave happy and its favoured characters to live happily ever after. On both counts, it succeeds.

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