By Rejoice Anodo
A festive crowd in the street. Eyo masquerades twirling in circular motions, clanking their sticks together. Excited onlookers cheering their performance. The monotonous voice of the narrator echoes in the background. All seems to be well until a man is killed in his home by one of the white-robed spirits, not with the stick, but with a double-barrelled gun.
This is the first opening of the film, Gangs of Lagos, and soon it closes to show the animated images and names of cast, directors, and then producer, Jade Osiberu, who has grown to become a household name in the Nollywood industry, making her mark with staunch thrillers like King of Boys (2018), Brotherhood (2022), and now the movie in question, Gangs of Lagos, the first original Nigerian movie to stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.
The movie is set in the early 2000s, with buildings and music reminiscent of those times, with characters wearing pencil-tight jeans, matching hairstyles and makeup. The story kicks off with the tale of three childhood friends Obalola (Tobi Bakre), Ify (Chike) and Gift (Adesua Etomi-Wellington) who grow up together navigating their young adult lives in the bustling streets of crime-infused Isale Eko. Everything seems normalised here, from underage girls stripping at clubs to repay debts to desperate upcoming musicians peddling drugs; a hub of criminality, in general.
The movie shines on young Obalola, played masterfully by Maleek Sanni and consequently bodied by Tobi Bakre as a young adult, the son of a king, a street king, and is destined for greatness in the town. His father’s untimely death uproots and relegates him to the background. He soon encounters Nino, short for Ninalowo (Tayo Faniran) an Eruku to Olorogun, the presiding Eleniyan; owner of men. Nino is poised to be the next Eleniyan, and is visibly favoured over Kazeem, a close contemporary.
Amidst Ninalowo’s swift ascent to his desired life of opulence and growing philanthropic gestures toward the people in the town, unexpected death strikes, and the young Obalola’s life shatters once again. A street war is waged in honour of Ninalowo’s death, and there is a ferocious blood bath.
The film takes up a fast pace fifteen years after the tragic incident, and we see the trio as young adults. Here, Kazeem (Olarotimi Fakunle) is the ruling Eleniyan. They run several errands designated to them, some as a group, others individually. Kazeem is a ruthless Eleniyan, who does not spare individuals that break his rules, including gang members. erring members, and anyone Kazeem considers a foe are judged on the spot, and killings are swift and brutal, in the most unexpected places.
“Omo aiye never brings harm to omo aiye ” is a phrase commonly used by respective gang members in Isale Eko to refer to the inviolable relationship they have with each other, and to prevent in-house wars. It means that the family never brought harm to its own, but Kazeem breaks this code multiple times, with Ify’s ordeal as a whistleblower that leads to the exposure of his other similar crimes.
Ify is the first among the friends to fall into Kazeem’s trap. He flops an assignment, and due to the fragility of his emotions, he is killed. His death triggers preceding motions that bring the whole community to its knees
It is important to note that although Jade’s choice of cast suits the plot and characters needed, it is almost as if they bear the same actor list. Brotherhood (2023) and Gangs of Lagos (2023) share almost the same set of characters and the same protagonist, Tobi Bakre. In Gangs of Lagos, he is Obalola Akande, the son of a street lord, a young man destined to rule the fictional town of Isale Eko in Lagos State, Nigeria. Tobi Bakre, known as Nollywood’s new action hero, delivers his lines wonderfully in both movies, and leaves little to be despised about his character.
Nollywood has a penchant for making star-studded movies with characters who tend to focus on outshining each other by sticking to their original, non-fictional selves. That way, viewers predict their next line of action, or the popular catchphrase. There is also the problem of characters not yielding their signature looks – a haircut, an accent- to morph with the assigned characters. Jade seems to resolve this issue with steeze, by casting music artisans and celebrities like Zlatan, Chike and Yhemo Lee, retaining their non-fictional selves without being overbearing. This is endearing to see, especially as a fan of Nigeria’s pop culture. The movie soundtrack is a masterful blend of old-school and contemporary afrobeats, ranging from King Sunny Ade, Chike to Naira Marley.
The storyline is a tad bit predictable, following the premise of the victor and the vanquished. The deaths are somewhat glamorised, with slow-motion fight scenes and objects swung with glee. It is hard to believe one would enjoy hacking another to death with a hammer or shovelling another man’s mouth with a spade.
The political undertones are laid on thick, similar to what plays out in reality. The actor who opposes the monarchical style of leadership in Lagos supported by the operations of street lords, and plays the role of a ‘righteous’ political opponent, but quickly moves on to curry the favour of the new Eleniyan. It leaves viewers to ponder if the politician does not know the new Eleniyan does not function due to the ever-existing veto power of street gangs in Lagos.
Although it has similar themes to Brotherhood, which covers being in the strength and “flushing out fresh blood to bring in the new”; the larger part of the plot is submerged in revenge and street wars, Gangs of Lagos is a good film, undeniably Lagosian as a large percentage of the dialogue is in Yoruba. This can be easily remedied with subtitles, and could serve as a benchmark for contemporary Nollywood thrillers with a bit of suspense, spice, and gore of course.