Until her death on the last day of July 2021, Rachel Oniga was one of Nollywood’s most prolific stars making her one of the few actresses qualified to be called ‘Nollywood Mothers.’ For close to three decades, she took on all kinds of mother roles in Nollywood movies, delivering each role with panache and ease. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to the beginning. Oniga started her Nollywood career as a costumier. Prior to this job, she had worked briefly at Ascoline Nigeria Limited, a Dutch Consultancy firm.
As a costumier, she was hired to assist the costume department on the set of Tade Ogidan’s Owo Blow. With some experience from acting in the 1996 blockbuster Onome, she was chosen to play the lead role when the initial actress did not show up. She delivered a great performance in the social drama that exemplified the plight of many Nigerians in the 90s and the rest is Nollywood history. The memorable acting she delivered as the widowed mother of young children launched her career as one of Nollywood’s finest mother figures. Since she started out playing the role of a mother, it was a full-circle moment to see her take on the role of mother again in her last movie, this time around a well-to-do, Ikoyi based widowed mother of three grown men.
Released five months after her demise, Oniga’s latest project titled A Naija Christmas is arguably Nigeria’s first Christmas movie. Although we have had movies featuring the holiday season in Nigeria, this Netflix film was designed solely in the spirit of the holiday – it was Nigeria’s way of joining the western culture of Christmas movies. With the Christmas holiday being the most popular holiday period globally, marking the end of a Gregorian year and a huge celebration for Nigeria’s over 80 million Christians, a Christmas holiday movie is a welcome addition.
A Naija Christmas is the simple but enchanting story of a mother’s desire to become a grandmother. Starring Oniga as the wealthy mother of three single boys, the movie features the story of an Igbo family living in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos. The first son, Ugo is a playboy music executive heavily in debt, followed by Obi, a nerd who is unable to decide which woman to settle down with, and Chike, who is having an affair with a married woman. The family drama is enjoyable with a smart combination of archetypes that are relatable. When the mother declares that the family house would go to any son that marries first, Ugo reaches out to his old flings in an attempt to marry, inherit the house and sell it to pay off his debts.
Desperate to find a wife, Ugo crosses part with Ajike, a songstress who represents the members of the aspiring lower class who are always useful to the upper class. She is an important member of the church choir who comes from Mushin, a ghetto area of Lagos where the church women’s group intends to hold their Christmas outreach. The tension between the rich and the urban poor in Lagos is laid bare in the movie, albeit in a simplistic, unsophisticated way. The characters from poor backgrounds are stereotyped in their portrayal and Ajike’s character as being from the area is not totally convincing.
Save for a few recent gaffes, one of Kunle Afolayan’s strengths on the screen is his understanding of actors’ abilities and his casting. Lateef Adedimeji, one of Yoruba Nollywood’s sissies plays the role of Tony Torpedo, a loan shark who extorts his debtors. Surprisingly, Adedimeji combined his on-screen persona with the interpretation of the role and delivered to viewers a sociopathic loan shark who cries at some point. Other characters also deliver their roles convincingly and like all holiday movies, the knotty situations in the plot are all resolved. The love triangle of Obi, Kaneng, and Vera is resolved when Obi decides to stay with Kaneng. After many problematic incidents, Ugo and Ajike get together in the movie’s final scene.
Segilola Ogidan’s performance as Ajike is highly commendable and this might be her own ‘Owo Blow’ moment as she steals the show in all her all scenes. Even though it is not her debut, this might be the movie that introduces her to a wider Nollywood audience as a versatile actress. Nonetheless, the star of the movie remains the late Oniga who delivered her role like she knew it was a valedictory performance. Her demise makes it easy to interpret the acting so but the delivery is normal for her, she has done it in over 100 movies locally and internationally for almost three decades, in both Yoruba and English languages.
In one of fate’s many attempts at humour, Oniga had her breakout role as a poor widow in Owo Blow and ends her career as a wealthy widow in A Naija Christmas. Apart from Rachel Oniga, the only other similarity between Owo Blow and A Naija Christmas is Pat Nebo, Nollywood’s longest-serving set designer. Oniga’s husband in Owo Blow died in prison but her husband in A Naija Christmas did not even feature in the story. In real life, Oniga was divorced before she became a public figure.
Oniga stayed working until her demise refusing to drop the ball until her last role in the 2022 Chief Daddy 2: Going For Broke. You can also find her in recent movies like Progressive Tailors Club and My Village People. As several iterations of Nollywood history come out every now and then, we hope she continues to get her due as one of the actors who gave Nollywood a solid footing in the country and globally.
Ayọ̀délé Ìbíyẹmí is a lifetime student of Literature. He is also a reader and critic who writes occasionally. For him, the world is intractable and it is words that make it livable. He has been a Wawa Young Literary Critic Fellow and has won the Ken Saro-Wiwa Critical Review Prize.