Written by Daniel Okechukwu

In an interview with film critic Oris Aigbokhaevbolo for The Africa Report, Genevieve Nnaji mentioned two things she does not like about the current state of Nollywood: the lack of original Nigerian stories and the classification of the industry into New and Old Nollywood.

In her directorial debut, Lionheart, she has told a story that is richly Nigerian – to be specific, richly Igbo – and also managed to address a few problems of what we now call new Nollywood while bridging the gap between it and Nollywood 1.0. 

New Nollywood refers to the Nigerian film industry in the age of resurgence of cinemas in the country. Nigerian movies produced before this period were shot in locations across the country, with the south-east region featuring heavily. Ever since the return to the big screens, the Lekki-Ikoyi bridge has become a constant feature in our cinemas. The eastern region has been grossly underrepresented and in Lionheart – shot in Enugu – it returns to the conversation.

Lionheart is unabashedly Igbo. The cast which includes veterans like Pete Edochie, Kanayo 0. Kanayo, Onyeka Onwenu, and Nkem Owoh are mostly Igbo. Half of the dialogue is in Igbo. The food, the music, and culture exhibited here are Igbo. It even explores how the Igbos view other Nigerian tribes from afar.

The movie follows the story of Adaeze Obiagu (Genevieve Nnaji), the apparent heir to her father’s ailing bus company – Lionheart. Her father, Chief Ernest Obiagu (Pete Edochie) is unable to carry on as CEO and MD of the company due to ill health but instead of appointing his competent daughter (who has worked with him for 8 years) as interim CEO, he has overlooked her in favor of his seemingly incompetent brother, Godswill Obiagu (Nkem Owoh). Adaeze must now work in collaboration with her uncle to save the company which is indebted to the tune of ₦950 million. 

Still frame from Genevieve Nnaji's Lionheart.
Genevieve Nnaji, Pete Edochie and Nkem Owoh.

To the average Igbo person, it is no surprise that the competent, experienced Adaeze – a woman – has been overlooked for her feckless uncle. It is hard to tell if Ms. Nnaji is trying to say more respect and trust to deliver should be given to the Igbo woman or if she is just trying to describe how competent Igbo women are often sidelined by the men in their life, including the ones who are “confident in their abilities.” Which is why Genevieve’s character protested in a conversation with her mum (played by Onyeka Onwenu), who stated that her father has his reasons: “I bet those reasons will not exist if Obiora (her brother) is in my shoes.”

One of the film’s strong themes is centered around the importance of family. In recent years, we have not seen a movie that explores an Igbo family the way Lionheart did. If you ever wondered what a typical Igbo family dinner is, that superb dinner scene featuring just the Obiagu’s is everything you need. Discussions range from advice on marriage to the Ada (the first daughter in an Igbo family) to career talk for the boys who seem to not know what to do with their lives.

Yinka Edward, known for his stellar work on movies such as 93 Days and October 1, is director of photography and he captures the essence of Enugu with a dusky hue which gives the movie a unique glow. It is commendable that not only is Enugu represented in the big screens but it is presented distinctly thanks to Yinka Edward’s brilliant, aesthetically-pleasing cinematography. 

The only disappointment here is Lionheart will not be seen in cinemas by the bulk of those living in the Southeast region of the country as the film did not get a nationwide cinema release. And its Netflix release can only go as far since we have not fully embraced movie streaming in Nigeria, no thanks to poor infrastructure and expensive data plans. Maybe Ms. Nnaji’s true intention is to take an authentic Nigerian story that showcases our culture and values to a global audience.

Lionheart is many things: a quality piece of cinema with solid, charismatic performances from different generations of Nollywood; but if there is something this film is shamelessly, that will be a love letter to Eastern-Nigeria. 

Daniel Okechukwu is a Nollywood blogger. He discusses the latest happenings in the Nigerian film industry on his blog. Tweet at him @That_Nollywood_Blogger.