“You have no respect for what you do not understand”
The above line in the film is my attempt to condense the plot of Biyi Bandele’s ‘Elesin Oba’, a film in Yoruba language adapted from Wole Soyinka’s Death and the Kings Horseman, which is a Netflix original production by EbonyLife studios.
The film is steeply set in the ancient Oyo kingdom.
A famous Yoruba city in Nigeria of the 1940s. Happening in the midst of second world war with Britain dominating world power.
The lives of Elesin Oba (Odunlade Adekola) his son Olunde (Deyemi Okanlawon) and Mr Pilkings the District Officer (Mark Eldering) got interwoven.
The result of which bore disastrous consequences for all, with Iya loja ( Shaffy Bello) as culture gatekeeper.
I had performed this play with two different stage directors , playing two different roles at two different times in the early 90s. So I feel somewhat attached to its narrative particularly the power of its imagery, symbolism and poetry.
In Elesin, I saw the director deliberately staying true to its original text undermining the latitude of possibilities which visual representation affords.
I however hold the view that what he lost in little elements of entertainment therein, he gained in culture promotion, deep dialogue, rich proverbs and good acting across board.
It would have been entertaining to see out the”role – play” of the girls when they mocked and prevented Sgt Amusa (Jide Kosoko) from disrupting the “emtying of self” which eventually weakened a trasition resolve.
Juxtapose this with the strong symbolism and imagery of the “Not- I-bird” in the original text which Elesin narrates to prove and underscore his readiness to join his king in death. You can then imagine the contradiction later in the story where the District officer, in an attempt to prevent one death, will rather kill many others if they caused trouble.
What an irony!
Our tragic hero starts out with loads of influence, reverence and pride, yet arrested, imprisoned and denied the pleasure of performing a most sacred duty and eventually died a shameful death.
“Do not let the sight of your father blind you”
to which Olunde replies
“I have no father, you eater of left overs”
DIODORUS a Greek Historian was quoted in Cheikh Diops African Origin of civilization that it was from Egyptians that the Ethiopians got most of their laws and learned to honour their kings as gods and bury them with pomp including human lives.
My point is to establish that ritual suicide was not as barbaric as the District Officer implied.
Unfortunately, the thinking of Europeans at the time was premised on the Western mode of thought being critical, rational and scientific while African mode are undeniably different.
The film scored high in production values. It was easy to tell that more than casual attempts were made in that space.
There was rich display of the elegant aso-oke worn by privileged few. However, l felt that the costumes of the natives needed to have been aged considerably to reflect the times and how the commoners looked.
Also Elesin’s beards kept me sufficiently distracted. Such distractions can become huge minus.
I was not convinced that Jike Kosoko delivered the role of Amusa. Same concerns for Oloun Iyo..as its said in football,they both seemed to have played “out of position”
Otherwise, the talents across board had a most stellar outing led by Shaffi Bello whose expressions, diction carriage, control and comportment was hugely commendable.
The well laid out set design particularly the homes of Mr Pilkings and ballroom set up demonstrates vividly the disparity in comfort and class against the living standards of the natives in the empire.
In his home, Mr Pilkings desecrate a peoples spiritual symbol – the revered egungun costume and continues the desecration by undermining the Holy Spirit which angers his domestic servant Joseph rightly portrayed by Kevin Ushi .
May I restate that the sound works, feel and texture were thrilling.
A German company made a film inspired by Death and the Kings Horseman but was reportedly mistold according to Prof Wole Soyinka contained in the footnote of the original text.
It is against this backdrop that I close this evaluation by paraphrasing a foremost Nigerian poet and writer Odia Ofeimun who made
the point that, with the denigrating narratives that the West heaped upon Africans, to justify rampant exploitation, slavery and later colonization, we should tell our stories by ourselves even if it has been well told by others.
I am persuaded that it is better to re-tell your story even incompetently, than for it to be badly told by others.Those whose stories are badly told suffer worse fate. They are obliged to carry an identity that is not theirs by which they will be forever judged.
“Elesin Oba” represents our own telling.
Now that I have seen Elesin Oba , Anikulapo and King of Thieves,
I reaffirm my resolve that ANY of them could have been selected and supported to represent Nigeria at the International feature film category of the OSCARS 2022. It would have given the world a peep into our stories, our works and our people .
IF I had one vote, it will be for Biyi Bandele’s Elesin Oba.