A few years ago, Isioma Osaje was studying medicine at Igbinedion University in Benin City, Nigeria. Today, she manages several top actors and has credits on Chief Daddy and King of Boys, the third-and fourth-highest-grossing Nigerian films, respectively. Both are also among the most expensive films ever made in Nigeria.
Osaje’s remarkable rise as a talent manager and producer is partly credited to Nollywood—the Nigerian film industry— being comfortable with women at the top. “Nollywood does not see gender,” she says. “Does this mean that women coming into the industry have it easier than men? No. But it means we don’t have it considerably harder, which is the case in other industries. This allows women to focus on doing the work and just the work.”
Osaje adds: “It’s about access; women in Nollywood generally have more access to decision-making positions, perhaps more so than in Hollywood. Access allows you to have a voice on-screen. Access allows you to put more women in the room.”
But things were not always like this.
The early days of Nigerian cinema began in the mid-1920s. This period, which lasted through the 1950s, is known as the Colonial Era, because the films were produced by white men— notably, Geoffrey Barkas and Zoltan Korda—and were racist.
After Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, Nigerian cinema underwent a transformation: more movies were produced and, in 1972, General Yakubu Gowon issued the Indigenization Decree to curb the influx of foreign-owned enterprises, causing ownership of most cinemas to be transferred to Nigerians.
This new development ushered in an era of Nigerian film producers, playwrights and directors; unsurprisingly, it was an all-men affair. The 1970s oil boom—by 1971, Nigeria was the world’s seventh-largest petroleum producer—ensured investment and huge patronage for cinema houses. This Golden Era remains one of the most fruitful for Nigerian cinema.
The inconsistent policies of military dictatorships and a collapsing economy led to a gradual decline of the Golden Era in the 1980s. Many cinema houses shut down, others were acquired by churches, and those that survived lasted only a few years. Most Nigerian filmmakers transitioned to television, which offered more economic stability.
Throughout the 1980s, television productions thrived, and prominent filmmakers were creating content for TV stations. The decade also witnessed the introduction of home video, which revolutionized the industry. Television productions were often recorded and sold on VHS illegally, where people would buy them to rewatch their favorite movies in the comfort of their homes. (Think of it like Netflix, pre-internet.)
In 1980, Jimi Odumosu’s horror film, Evil Encounter, showed the potential of the video market. The film was broadcast on TV, but soon after, recorded copies were all over Lagos, Nigeria’s entertainment capital. The film was a huge hit in the Alaba electronics market, an important distribution venue for Nollywood films. After the commercial success of Evil Encounter on the illegal market, TV broadcasts were routinely recorded and sold on the streets.
As films on VHS became more popular on the streets, Kenneth Nnebue, an Igbo trader, began recording Yoruba-language stage dramas on video and sold them through Alaba. They were popular enough that Nnebue moved into film production—between 1989 and 1993, he made several Yoruba-language films, including Aje Ni Iya Mi and Olorogun.
However, it was Living in Bondage, his first Igbo-language film, that brought him substantial commercial success and showed that movies released directly on video could be profitable. After Living in Bondage, more filmmakers, including those in TV, embraced video, and a new era of Nigerian cinema emerged—one that brought unprecedented commercial success. As in other eras of Nigerian cinema, the most prominent filmmakers were men, including Chico Ejiro, Zeb Ejiro, Nnabue, Femi Lasode, Teco Benson, the Amata brothers and Christian Onu. But in this crowd of men stood Amaka Igwe.
Known for directing the popular soap opera Checkmate for the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Igwe was the only prominent female filmmaker in the direct-to-video film era. (In front of the camera, however, female stars were just as successful as the men.) Encouraged to join the home video trend by investors and actors, Igwe directed the cult classic RattleSnake, followed by Violated, one of the highest-grossing films of 1996.
Igwe’s commercial and critical success in the male-dominated video era showed that women can be big players in Nollywood. She died in 2014, but her success has inspired a generation of women who will balance out the overwhelming male dominance in Nollywood.
Despite its successes, many have dismissed the video era’s production values. Celluloid filmmakers like Tunde Kelani, who studied filmmaking abroad, often refused to be classified as Nollywood directors.
“I don’t do home videos,” Kelani said in one interview. “Although some consider this statement controversial, the fact is that most of my films are intended for the large screen. So, after screening a film extensively to a paying audience, we may now release it in the home video format.”
“Patriarchy exists, and sometimes, women need to be more assertive with some male colleagues.”
More cinema houses have emerged, including Genesis Deluxe and Ozone, and filmmakers have embraced making movies for the big screen, leading to the gradual death of home videos. Also, Ben Murray Bruce’s entertainment company, Silverbird Group, has opened cinemas in affluent areas across the country.
The 2009 thriller The Figurine, directed by Kelani protégé Kunle Afolayan, was a game-changer; a commercial and critical success, the film drew attention to the new wave of films made with high production values.
The following year, Chineze Anyaene’s Ije, starring veteran actors Genevieve Nnaji and Omotola Jalade, surpassed The Figurine as the top-grossing Nigerian film. The film was the first of many female-directed movies that ruled the box office in the 2010s.
The past decade has seen women ruling supreme in Nollywood. Media mogul Mo Abudu’s 2009 debut, Fifty, tells the story of four women approaching the apex of their careers and lives, and the challenges that come with it. Like Ije, the film was written and produced by women, a constant in movies produced by Abudu’s studio, EbonyLife Films.
“The media industry is male-dominated, but we are 80 percent female,” Abudu told the Times. “I have to create a balance; our head of legal is female, our head of programming is female, our head of strategy is female.”
Fifty was a box office hit, and every year since its release, Abudu has had a success at the box office—her studio’s next three films, Chief Daddy and Wedding Party 1 and 2, are the highest-grossing Nigerian films in history. Throughout the 2010s, Abudu ruled the box office, alongside other female filmmakers. Four of the five biggest Nollywood blockbusters in the decade were either produced or directed by a woman.
Female executives have also grown more powerful. The producer and director Genevieve Nnaji starred in Nigeria’s first Netflix original film, Lionheart, released in 2018. In 2019, Vivendi Canal+, looking for more Nollywood content, acquired Mary Remmy-Njoku’s ROK Studios, a prolific production outfit that favors mostly female producers. Abudu herself signed a multi-series TV deal with Sony.
As women have gained influence, they’ve opened doors for other female filmmakers. Some men have also helped open the industry to women. Niyi Akinmolayan (Chief Daddy,) runs Chics in Post, an annual program that trains 30 women in video editing for free. The director believes “great knowledge in editing is a great kickstart into directing and producing, so they don’t have to learn on set and be subjected to male madness— harassment.”
However, despite all the progress, Nollywood exists in a highly patriarchal society. “It’s still an industry in Nigeria, so of course the general sentiments permeate,” Isioma Osaje says. “Patriarchy exists, and sometimes, women need to be more assertive with some male colleagues.”
The patriarchy persists, yes, but if recent history is any indication, women will continue to make strides, proudly staking their claim in the thriving and ever-evolving movement that is Nigerian cinema.
Daniel Okechukwu is a Nollywood writer. He discusses the latest happenings in the Nigerian film industry on That Nollywood Blog.
Andrea is a contributor to The New York Times Magazine and to National Geographic.