Review: “Shanty Town”

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“Vibrate yourself” (stay cool), “zanga” (home), “sanko” (prison)—these are some of the linguistic gems bequeathed by Shanty Town, the six-part Netflix series directed by Dimeji Ajibola. The characters in this series speak a street slang and Nigerian pidgin English that approach poetry, often leaving one pining for the sing-song exchanges between Scar (Chidi Mokeme) and Colorado (Zubby Michaels). Besides adding to the story’s realism—the jagged but lyrical pidgin English befits the series’s brutal world of prostitution—the characters use language in a way that often diffuses the story’s oft-serious situations with unintended humour. On the cusp of a character literally losing her head, a line or two might make you lose your head with laughter.

But the dialogue also works as an effective character development artifice, often betraying an implied fact about a character. The characters, many of them female prostitutes, often code-switch jarringly between pidgin—which is associated with unlettered Nigerians—and impeccable English. When Ene (Nse Ikpe-Etim) performs one such linguistic miracle in a scene, one wonders if, in a distant former life, she was someone else—say, a banker—and if happenstance had made her a prostitute. One doesn’t have to guess about some of the other characters—Shalewa (Nancy Isime), one learns, was coerced into prostitution to offset her father’s debt.

You may have already inferred that this series is about prostitution. The titular Shanty Town refers to a brothel, somewhere in Lagos, ruled hailstone-style by the patriarch Scar. In Shanty Town the prostitutes are made to believe they can buy their freedom if only they can work hard enough—in fact our excursion into this shadowy part of town begins with Jackie (Mercy Eke), a prostitute, celebrating her freedom. But it’s only an illusion as she fatally learns. In truth the women are helpless victims of men with no hope of escape, existing only as sources of entertainment and profit for the men, a point the series stresses—perhaps ad nauseam—by constantly teeing up a woman’s body for masculine invasion. In at least three scenes, a man is slapping a woman’s derriere for sport.

The first woman we meet who is unavailable for poking and choking has financial and political power. Played with a maniacal pizzazz by Shaffy Bello, she is the villainous Lagos State governor who feels threatened in the forthcoming gubernatorial election by the equally villainous Chief, played by Richard Mofe-Damijo who brings to the role a deadly cool and a penchant for monologues.

In one scene, the governor confesses her love for the women who danced on stage alongside the afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, but she rues that these women are “nameless,” a sentiment resounding the story’s overarching theme of feminine anonymity. But despite the general powerlessness of the women in this series, one notices some kinds of feminist remonstrance. One sees that the story has a female governor—an implausibility in real-life Lagos—and that a woman confronts the story’s all-powerful male politician. Also, a woman, Inem (Ini Edo), backed by a police team led by a woman (Uche Jumbo), brings ruin to the series’s strongman antagonist, Scar.

This is also a story about politics, or more specifically, how politics and prostitution often ally. Kenneth Gyang’s Oloture (2019) comes to mind as the most recent example of a Nigerian film which portrays politicians and prostitutes as customary bedfellows. And like in Oloture, a female character in this series goes undercover to uncover a prostitution ring, only to become a victim of rape. Where both differ is there’s also an implied world of organ trade in Shanty Town. They differ on moral terms, too. Characters like Peace (Pearl Okorie) in Oloture are never ashamed that they are courtesans. But Shanty Town entirely depicts prostitution as a world from which women long to escape or are ashamed of. And perhaps Jackie, conversing with Shalewa, best betrays this series’s moral judgement about the world of transactional sex, her tone preachy and snobbish: “The more you stay here, the more you become like them.”

Watching this series, one longs for the scenes with the actor Chidi Mokeme—as Scar he delivers a double bill of verbal entertainment and believable dread. In fact he appears in more scenes than any other female character, which is uncanny because it contravenes the story’s female focus and because he does not really want anything unlike, say, Shalewa who wants to escape Shanty Town, Inem who wants vengeance, and Ene who wants to retain her position as head courtesan. A character suggests Scar might be Chief’s bastard child, but even so he does not seek fatherly acceptance.

It appears this series merely uses Scar as a decoy. With everyone’s attention on him, the story could more easily obscure its grand secret until the end—clue: it involves twins, and it’s worth the wait.

One might find the fight scenes in this series insufferable because they look unnatural, and one might not brook the supernatural element thrown in towards the end of the series, as it conflicts with the story’s realism. But Shanty Town more than compensates for those by presenting a believable world of prostitution where its women work in unison to regain control over their lives.