“Gangs of Lagos” Pays Attention to the Lagos Underworld without Paying Attention to Itself

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A mortifying oversight lurks in the third act of Jade Osiberu’s crime action Gangs of Lagos, Amazon Prime Video’s first African original film. In one drone shot showing party guests fleeing for dear life as bullets fly in the background, the movie’s director of photography can be seen handling a camera for a fleeting moment. Somehow, the movie’s editor had failed to spot this. While many wouldn’t catch this blooper their first time watching the movie, and while it doesn’t shatter the fourth wall, this kind of inattention to detail runs through the movie. It recalls the problems of continuity rife in old Nollywood movies, where, for instance, a keen observer might catch the hand of a corpse shifting ever so slightly. 

Speaking of corpses, Gangs of Lagos has hundreds of them. They litter the streets of Lagos, where the movie is set. The movie’s gore borders on gratuity. Deadly gang clashes are set to scores aflutter with jaunty saxophones. Assassins masquerade as Eyo masquerades. We even needlessly see a detached, blood-sodden human ear. But this is the movie’s way, even if lurid, of telling us the Lagos underworld is pessimistically cutthroat. 

The movie’s gratuity is possibly a learned behaviour. Recent Nollywood blockbusters, like Kemi Adetiba’s King of Boys and Dimeji Ajibola’s Shanty Town, similarly signpost gratuitous violence, inspiring great commercial success rather than reprimand from the public. Perhaps seeing how greedily the public lapped up the bloodletting in those films, Gangs of Lagos thought to imbibe the macabre aesthetic.

This movie also heavily flaunts western, particularly American, aesthetics. Even its title seems to have been cloned from AMC’s Gangs of London. And what is more American than an action movie in which the protagonist, while having the upper hand, is successfully convinced by the villain to lay down his gun and “fight me like a man”? That risible trope plays out in this movie, but also the villain’s customary fall from a high-rise building to a stationary car. And in one scene in this movie, people troop to a local mob boss for his help, recalling the popular wedding party scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Incidentally, the scenes in both movies concern a wronged parent and a sexually abused daughter. 

Like King of Boys and Shanty Town, this movie foregrounds the R-rated side of Lagos and how it so often intervenes in the day’s politics. But unlike those two movies, Gangs of Lagos never shows us how thuggery impinges on politics. It only tells us that it does, through scraps of dialogue but mostly through the voice-over by its main character Obalola, played for the most part by Tobi Bakre.

Maleek Sanni of the Ikorodu Bois plays the younger version of Obalola. When we first meet him he is around twelve or thirteen. He and his two friends, both kids like him, are improbably pulling off an armed robbery in a traffic jam in Lagos. But for long stretches of the film’s first act, it’s hard to nail down the period in Lagos in which the movie is set. Kwam 1’s Funky Fuji scores one scene and in another one of the kids says he wants to be a great musician like Tuface, both suggesting this is Lagos in the early 2000s. But this is contradicted by the make-up style on Yvonne Jegede’s face and a Snickers’ wrapper spied in one scene, both suggesting a Lagos closer to the 2020s. Failing to cater to the details, the movie doesn’t convincingly convey the mood of that era. In fact, it would take a tombstone to settle the question of the era in which the opening scenes are set. It’s 2007. 

Sixteen years later, all three kids are grown but have yet to outgrow their vices. They are still street thugs—Obalola, Gift (Adesua Etomi-Wellington), and Ify (the musician Chike). But they don’t look like it, their manner too well-bred, their faces exuding the sexy glow of people used to luxurious skin-care products. The problem isn’t the acting; it’s the casting. But like many Nollywood movies, Gangs of Lagos puts business first. And it’s good business sense to cast the popular faces, whether or not they suit the role.    

As to what this movie is about, it’s hard to say. Or should I say, it’s hard to accept. In the end the movie suggests that street life is a hole from which no one ever crawls out of. But this insight would feel more hard-won if the protagonist makes any effort to escape his situation. He doesn’t. He says he’s saving money to travel abroad, where he’ll resume his education. But there’s scant evidence of this desire. 

Towards the end Obalola is loaded with a more visceral motivation—revenge—but it feels contrived. The viewer couldn’t have deduced the circumstances leading to the character hankering for revenge. Not because it’s an ingenious twist, but because there’s no proper set-up. In fact, the movie relies on a minor character filling in the blanks through flashback narration, just so Obalola can be afforded stakes more sobering than securing a visa. 

Yet, had it catered to the details on the technical level, this movie could have possibly gotten away with its gratuity, its derivative nature and its other more grievous sins. It won’t be a masterpiece, but at least it would avoid certain mortifying blunders. As they say, the devil—and cinematic brilliance—is in the details.