Kunle Afolayan's 'Swallow' Treats Socially-Themed Issues with Insincerity
The renowned director's '80s themed adaptation feels underwhelming.
Kunle Afolayan’s new project, Swallow, focuses on the struggles of typical average people living in 1980’s Nigeria. The Netflix original is an adaptation of the same title from award-winning Nigerian-American writer Sefi Atta. With the screenplay written by the original novel writer Sefi Atta alongside the film director Kunle Afolayan, the story is narrated by Tolani Ajao (Eniola Akinbo), a young Yoruba woman living in Lagos. Tolani moved to Lagos from her hometown in Makoku village, seeking a brighter future and a more modern life.
Tolani shares a simple apartment with her friend and colleague Rose Adamson (Ijeoma Grace Agu), a city girl with an impetuous manner who is not shy about voicing her dissatisfaction with the state of the country and her marginal existence. For Tolani, life in the big city is nothing like what she had hoped it would be. The infrastructure is dilapidated. Power outages are frequent, and she faces sexual harassment from her boss with no one to query or call him to order.
The plot of this feature is pragmatic because we see the director vividly trying to explore the human condition in Nigeria in the 1980s but was the execution strong enough to convey the realities of that era?
It is to be noted that drug trafficking/smuggling was not regarded as a major problem in Nigeria until the ’80s. In the 1950s drug peddling was restricted to a few Nigerians who had traveled abroad and returned, especially those who had taken part in World War II. At that time, marijuana, popularly known in Nigeria as “igbo” (''grass''), was essentially the only drug that was involved. However, from the early 1980s to the present day, drug trafficking involving narcotics (cocaine, heroin, etc.) has been observed at alarming proportions. During this period, a whole new market that services the drug industry has sprung up with its arms spread worldwide.
And the term swallowing became a thing for traffickers in and out of Africa. And Nigeria was not left out of the swallow syndrome. As reported in a book titled “Lost Rights” published by James Bovard in 1994: Nigerian drug lords have employed an army of 'swallowers', those who will swallow as many as 150 balloons and smuggle drugs into the United States. Given Nigeria’s per capita yearly income at the time was about $2,100, Nigerians who engage in smuggling can collect as much as $15,000 per trip. This is a tremendous success rate for any Nigerian trying to elevate him or herself out of poverty.
Like the novel, Swallow's plot expresses a sensibility molded predominantly in the eventualities of post-independence in Nigeria and the difficulty associated with fashioning out a sustainable government that can ensure development and the well-being of its masses through the characters in the project. But the effort of the director to creatively detail the travails of young women, men, mothers, and their children as they struggle to survive this period of structural adjustment that the government at the time had set in was watered down in the performance.
In what should have been a groundbreaking acting debut for popular Nigerian singer, Eniola Akinbo popularly referred to as Niyola, as we see the story from her point of view, her interpretation felt flat and insincere.
That’s one of the biggest problems with Swallow – it doesn’t take any of its topics to heart. Much is lost somewhere along the way, and nothing really stays with you after the movie ends. Tolani’s character is rooted in culture, and her character arc is decent for a first-time actor, but it wasn't thrilling enough to enact the themes around the drama. In most cases, her actions disconnect from her dialogue, making it strenuous to root for her persona as she subtly fights for her place in a society largely ground in patriarchy.
The relationship between Tolani and her longtime boyfriend Sanwo (Deyemi Okanlawon) also doesn’t convey a bond. Their relationship felt more like siblings, and you only sense that they are dating when she requests that he comes to ask for a hand in marriage.
Rose, on the other hand, is arguably the star of the movie. Her character set the pace for the tension and conflict which brewed at the beginning till her tragic exit from the still-unfolding plotline of the tale with her commandeering statement: “no woman can afford to be nice in this place.” Ijeoma simply embodies the role and lives the character. It was interesting to follow her journey as she draws you in with her tone and streetwise sassiness. Her pain becomes your pain, and you are propelled to see life from her perspective.
When Rose meets O.C money, who encourages her to swallow, she has only one mission: to make money and elevate her family from poverty.
Ijeoma is known to deliver masterpieces and her interpretation in the award-winning 2015 feature, Oga Taxi:Oko Ashewo, is a testament to her acting prowess. Rose wants a bright future for herself, but life’s harsh realities do not allow her to live her dreams as a typist. Through Rose's portrayal, I could easily sense the struggle of an average Nigerian who wants a better life. Rose is aware of the consequence of swallowing, but her anger towards poverty is her driving force for indulging. And even when she does agree to swallow, she tries to convince Tolani, who later backs out. Rose faces a brutal and unfulfilling end that makes you love her character even more.
Both Tolani and Rose’s characters probe social class, greed, gender bias, and morality, but when paired together in scenes, Rose’s execution shines through as it holds the concept of morality in a society like Nigeria in a questioning mood throughout the ninety minutes duration giving the audience a sense of the rooted problems in Nigeria.
For the much younger generation, this period piece creates an avid picture of what Nigeria looked like in the ’80s through costume design, aerial view, art direction, lifestyle, and music, giving them an avenue to see a Nigeria of the past and creating a nostalgic feeling for the older generation.
Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t offer solutions, and most of the issues stay on edge, prompting viewers to make their own conclusions. The Drug syndicate in the 1980s was a worrisome situation for Nigeria. In this period, the country recorded an alarmingly high number of mental health cases, and her reputation in foreign countries where her citizens were arrested for trafficking drugs was in jeopardy.
In the early days, drug lords had a stance that made you fear them. In this story, O.C money's character as developed lacked proper action and perspective needed to project the character he is playing. His delivery was on the surface, making his role in the film feigned. The football scenes were exhilarating to see but ultimately felt very repetitive and off-putting as the movie evolved.
The idea that a project reflects the creative vision of its director has become vitally popular to the way viewers typically absorb the art form.
Kunle Afolayan is one of the very few directors in Nigeria with an easily recognisable unique style in his projects. He tells his stories through high-end picture quality, which is visually appealing, and his stories are primarily open-ended and, more importantly, culturally themed.
Most recently, part of his style is the continual use of non-actors as leads in serious themed projects. Telling stories through fresh faces is encouraging, compared to the stereotypical performance from the same actors common in Nollywood. Afolayan is giving young creative people from different entertainment industry sectors opportunities to start a career in acting in filmmaking, therefore giving them a big break in big-budget film projects with a renowned director.
These creatives have social power, and their appearance in such large budget productions will drive their fans and well-wishers to the cinema or streaming platforms to see them perform and show their skills in acting.
However, this approach hasn't offered the intended spark and story success the director is going for, and this doesn't help drive the appropriate conversations as expected from cinephiles.
Aside from the consistent use of new actors, cameo appearances in his flicks are a surprising element to showcase his acting skill. His interpretation of a pastor didn’t sit in as his performance didn’t connote any gravity. The scene was also not necessary to film and could have been left out.
However, the way religion was characterised in the project might upset many religious fanatics, but then, I guess that's what a film is supposed to do, create conversations and outrightly call out systematic problems hindering the growth of our society as stated in this motion-picture.
In conclusion, Swallow is a story with huge potential that doesn't live up to its expectations. Stories like this ought to sell an imaginative narrative about our history to the rest of the world by distinctly documenting the Nigerian government’s involvement in the drug trafficking circle of the 80s.
Instead, the plot is subtle in its approach and it will seem tedious for a lot of people who expect to see more in-depth storytelling from the filmmaker compared to its original novel. Nonetheless, the flick does raise your awareness of the country’s socio-cultural milieu irrespective of the geographical area of the characters portrayed in the movie.
Swallow is currently streaming on Netflix.
Featured Images courtesy of Netflix