Most great movies are defined, maybe, propelled, more like, by the trifecta of tropes, stereotypes and archetypes.
These three continue to recur and define three of the movies made by Kunle Afolayan, from Figurine to October 1st and now The CEO.
The other English language movie from his oeuvre, Phone Swap, even though evincing elements of the trifecta, is eliminated from consideration because it is a comedy.
Kunle Afolayan, son of Ade Love has produced 5 feature length movies in the space of 10 years.
Four years earlier in an interview with this writer, Mr. Afolayan had scoffed at the use of the term, new Hollywood, which now seems ironic because he has become the poster boy of that new Nollywood, a term that encapsulates what Nollywood should aspire to, big budget features with international collaborations and superior technical quality.
To return now to the trifecta; Mr. Afolayan’s recent movie, The CEO rides the trope of Reality TV to deliver a masterful movie. The premise is simple and familiar to every cable TV subscriber.
TransWire, a telecom company with footprints across the African continent is seeking to replace a recently departed CEO. Five top executives are picked from across Africa to take part in a strategy boot camp run by Dr. Zimmerman, a very wooden Angelique Kidj., who is clearly in the movie just for her star wattage
The five are Kola, a Nigerian who, to continue with the Reality TV analogy, would approximate to, considering his carefree and blasé attitude, Ebuka, quaffing Guinness stout in the first edition of Big Brother to grace our screens in Nigeria.
There is Eloise, the Ivorian, with a sick husband. She is reluctant to take up the challenge but prodded by her husband, she comes to Nigeria where an indiscretion leads to tragedy.
Jomo is Kenyan. An inveterate gambler, he has been filching money from his company’s account. Scared of being found out, Jomo’s paranoia leads to tragedy.
Yasmine is Moroccan. Based in Nigeria, she has been fingered in a deal gone sour and the authority’s interest in her leads to disastrous consequences.
Riikard is the South African wunderkind. Cocky and without a care, he says he is in it to win it.
And then there is the talented Lala Akindoju, who despite flying under the radar as the mousy HR executive, delivers a wallop by movie end.
But the winner of it all is the Nollywood returnee, Hilda Dokubo fresh from a tour of duty as a government appointee. Her police detective role is invigoratingly flesh and recalls not just Sadiq Daba’s Inspector Waziri character in October 1 but also Frances McDormand’s pregnant detective character in the Coen brothers’ vehicle, Fargo.
It is proof of Dokubo’s star power and superior talent that even though she delivers almost all her lines sitting down yet, grabs our attention solely on account of her voice and facial expressions. When she says ‘Sit your yansh down’ one can feel the weight of exasperation and authority colliding as one.
The most obvious trope is that of the Reality TV, while the characters’ bear out various stereotypes; the swashbuckling Nigerian with arms thrust out as if he owns the universe, the cocky South African with a chip on his shoulders, the flirty French charmer sleeping her way to the top, the hard drinking Kenyan and submissive francophone African wife.
But it is the archetype that drives the movie and which leaves the discerning movie goer seeing the three movies as an extended meditation on the contemporary human condition, one that is not obviated by his casual references to our deepest existential and primordial fears.
The three movies are defined by a quest, a seeking-after something and there is always a culprit or killer hiding in plain sight. Kunle Afolayan also manages to throw in a dash of the supernatural, which begins, usually, almost as a practical joke but with deadly consequences; the figurine that keeps appearing, the X carved into the chest of the female victims in October 1 and the game of musical chairs which sees losers losing their lives in The CEO.
The questions are always there; where is the figurine coming from; what does the X mean and how are the deaths related to the game of musical chairs?
As Africans, the temptation is always there to explain away the conundrum as a supernatural occurrence, a fetish consequence. And it is easy to see why. Kunle Afolayan, the son of Ade Love grew up steeped in the Nigerian movie tradition of the supernatural and the fetish. In his movies, there is always a nod to that atavistic essence but it is a homage paid with a wink. His audience is being had and he is complicit in the deception.
What now emerges is a movie that adopts a very modern trope in explicating an archetype as old as antiquity. The CEO is both Reality TV and yet a philosophical treatise and business primer that could very well be required viewing in business school. It riffs not just on ethics and professionalism, leadership and responsibility but also on public relations and crisis management.
Dr. Zimmerman is unto something when she says “idealism and pragmatism are not birds of the same feather.”
But it is Wale Ojo as Kola who has all the best lines from “Oyibo, you are not my broda,” to his sharp riposte to Dr Zimmerman which elicited applause to wit: “the CEO must be able to keep what he does in the boardroom separate from the bedroom.”
In proving his progressive mettle, Kunle Afolayan, as he did in Figurine and October 1, shows again that we remain prisoners so long as we allow ourselves to be shackled by our primordial fears a sentiment that is echoed by Riikard when he says “I don’t believe the psychobabble crap.”
Set in the idyllic locale of Inagbe resort, there is aside the obvious thematic similarities already mentioned, a noticeable similarity in the pacing of his movie. The pace of Kunle Afolayan’s movies is often sedate and languid but never languorous.
And then there is the Chinese angle. Napoleon once wrote: ‘Let China sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world.” That day is here and Afolayan, in putting the chinese language in the mouth of Kola (Wale Ojo), is signposting an imminent reality, a time when Cantonese or Mandarin would become the language of business even in Africa.
Kunle Afolayan has delivered another major movie in The CEO, which he is marketing as a Pan-African movie and deep within the core of his continuing success as a Nigerian filmmaker lies the challenge for Mr. Afolayan because for his next movie project to grab the attention of the discerning viewer who is now on to him, our director must best himself.
His next movie must pack a punch and distance himself from what is beginning to appear like a template.