Tunde Kelani’s Ayinla is A Worthy History Lesson

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Ayodele Ibiyemi
Critiquing a movie directed by Tunde Kelani is not easy because he is a perfect blend of experience and excellence. Movie after movie, the veteran filmmaker continues to outdo himself and critics always run the risk of just praising his movies and missing the lapses. The summary of his latest movie, Ayinla, is that the movie is flawless. Every aspect of the movie reflects the excellence that characterizes Kelani’s Mainframe Opomulero brand.

When the filmmaker announced that he was doing a biopic of popular Apala musician, Ayinla Omowura, the general expectation was that the conundrum surrounding the musician’s life and death would be settled and people would know the actual events leading up to his untimely death. Later on, Kelani took to his Instagram page to explain that the movie is not exactly a biopic but an artistic representation of the musician’s life. “The film Ayinla is not entirely a biopic, it is, in fact, a story inspired by the life of the Apala music legend, Ayinla Omowura,” he stated online.

This caveat is what makes the movie flawless as it stops being critiqued based on its merit as a biopic but as a movie that draws on a real historical event. To prove that it is not exactly a biopic, the casting omits two important features that should ordinarily have been in an Ayinla Omowura biopic. The first is that Ayinla Omowura’s estranged manager was named Baiyewumi instead of Bayowa, the name of the manager in Kelani’s movie. Also, Ayinla Omowura had prominent tribal marks while Lateef Adedimeji who plays Ayinla in Kelani’s movie has no tribal mark. Adedimeji could have had the same marks that were on Ayinla’s face but Kelani simply refused to do that. While this might be seen as an oversight, I refuse to see it as such. Instead, I see the omission of this important feature as an attempt to prove that this movie is not exactly a biopic of Ayinla Omowura. This seeming error is easy to interpret as an artistic technique because the casting of Lateef Adedimeji is one of the strongest points of the movie. Adedimeji reenacts the character of Ayinla Omowura for those who knew the man and the younger people who only heard his story. Adedimeji might be sealing his place in Nollywood history with this movie. Most actors usually have their legacy moments; movies that end up marking their identities forever, Ayinla might be Adedimeji’s legacy role. The ẹ̀gbá accent is not so easy for non-native speakers but he channeled it perfectly.

One notable feature is the addition of Debo Adedayo, known as Macaroni, for his sugar daddy shtick on Instagram. Bayowa played by Adedayo shows that he is a versatile actor and has a future in the industry. This is notable because most Instagram skit makers are unable to properly break into Nollywood because they are usually cast as their usual skit characters. Beyond Macaroni’s transformation into a serious actor, other characters also delivered their roles perfectly. The movie combines A-list actors with some newcomers but the entire casting shows experience and quality.

The movie also features Tunde Kelani himself as a cameraman; a good reminisce of his early days as a cameraman even if the performance is a bit underwhelming. The location of the movie in the historic city of Abeokuta also made things easy for the production team. Beyond being Ayinla Omowura’s city, it is one of Nigeria’s historic cities and is fitting for historical movies. While there are a few gaps in the locations used for actual filming and it is obvious that some of them were newly constructed or renovated for the movie, the locations were perfect and the best thing about that is the attention to detail. The houses and offices have props that reflect the era that the film presents. For older people, it would be nostalgic and for younger people, it would help them understand their forebears’ lives. The costuming of the set also bears fidelity to the period being represented. A lot of the fabrics used by the main characters were sourced for the purpose by British-Nigerian designer, Ade Bakare.

Music played a huge role in the movie as it was narrated using songs; almost like a Nigerian Musical. The expectation is that such a movie would feature songs of Ayinla Omowura but Kelani even did more. The story was guided by old Nigerian songs that evoked nostalgic feelings in the theatre. One of the first songs used in the movie is Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s Onidodo, an archetypal highlife song from his early days as a musician. Songs by Ebenezer Obey also featured in the movie. In one of the scenes that featured Kunle Afolayan who played Olabisi Ajala, journalist, travel writer, actor, and socialite, the tribute Ebenezer Obey sang for him featured and it evoked memories. The inclusion of Ajala’s character and the portrayal of his restlessness and peripatetic nature showed the intersection of historical figures. Olabisi Ajala is a Nigerian who represents an era that is now long gone, a man well deserving of a biopic of his own. Also, the leftist movement in Nigeria at the time was featured with the character of Jaiye the Marxist, played by Ade Laoye.

The biggest benefit of watching Ayinla is the knowledge contained in it. It is not just the story of Ayinla Omowura, it is a lesson in Nigerian history. There was no undue attempt to whitewash Ayinla Omowura in the movie. He was shown as a promiscuous man, a flirt, a lout, and a belligerent musician who was impatient. Still, there is sophistication with his performance that shows that he controlled the airwaves while alive. The quality of the movie is not entirely surprising as production was supported by First Bank. This validates the argument that good money in the hands of an experienced director is enough to produce excellent work.

Tunde Kelani is an outlier because he is the sole connection between what movies used to be in Nigeria and what it is now. He is the last of his generation and I hope that he does more historical movies. It is important for him to direct movies like this or give guidance to younger directors because he experienced some of Nigeria’s most pivotal periods as it is obvious with Ayinla that he knew the characters he was portraying.

Already, the movie in addition to the recently published biography of Ayinla Omowura has caused a resurgence in the character of Ayinla Omowura, and more young people are researching him and talking about him. I hope more Nigerian filmmakers do biopics and the estate of Ayinla Omowura will build on this interest to further propagate the legacy of one of the most important musicians of Yoruba heritage.

Ayodele Ibiyemi is a literary critic and arts and culture journalist. He won the Ken Saro-Wiwa Prize for Critical Review in 2019.

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