n November 13, 2015 Genevieve Nnaji, the Nigerian actress who some have called the face of Nollywood, premiered her latest movie, The Road to Yesterday, at the close of the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF). The event took place at the Genesis Deluxe Cinemas inside The Palms, a shopping mall in the upscale Lekki Neighborhood of Lagos. It was a gathering of Nigeria’s most influential film and television personalities who mingled with an onslaught of unknown actors, actresses, and filmmakers hoping to break into the increasingly glamorous and lucrative Nollywood, the world’s third largest film industry. I tried to navigate my way through the crowd of people towards the interview stations along the red carpet, but there was almost no room between the women in long dresses and men in crisp suits. If Hollywood is a well structured machine with actors systematically tiered by A, B, C list categories according to their earning power, popularity and ultimate cultural significance, then its African cousin Nollywood, is an altogether more chaotic but egalitarian affair where everyone is welcome, but you must hustle or shout for attention in an improvised industry that is remaking and redefining itself as quickly as the country that birthed it. This frenetic creativity combined with the Nigerian love of the hustle made for a boisterous environment in which conversations were shouted over the Naija-pop playing through the overhead loudspeakers. I could feel the room’s vibrational energy. An American friend of mine in town to research Nollywood remarked that this was the most fun she had ever had going to the movies.
Then Genevieve arrived wearing an immaculate white, curve hugging, floor length dress with a daringly revealing scooped back and knee-high front slit framed by graceful frills. For a moment the room paused as bodies parted and Genevieve floated gracefully from the entrance, down the red carpet towards a VIP section. Her producing partner and business manager Chinny Onwugbenu, the film’s screenwriter and director, Ishaya Bako, producer Chi-Chi Nwoko, and co-star Oris Erhuero assembled around her as she took questions from a hungry media that had been starved of Nigeria’s brightest star for the last three years. The Road to Yesterday had only been prescreened for a very limited audience of media executives and industry professionals. It was under the strictest embargo until that night to prevent the piracy that still plagues Nigeria’s creative industries. Even AFRIFF did not get a screener copy until the moment of the premier. The curiosity was intense, the questioning even more so. What was the world to expect from Nollywood’s leading lady?
The unexpected is a familiar realm for a woman who originally thought she would study law in university and then found herself at the forefront of the completely new world of Nigerian film. The first time I met Genevieve was at the Wheatbaker hotel in Ikoyi, Lagos towards the end of 2014. I had received a random call from Chi-Chi Nwoko, a New York based film and television producer who asked if I would be interested speaking to Genevieve about developing a new television show. My previous exposure to Genevieve had only been through newspaper articles, magazine covers, and the pernicious murmurings that follow celebrities – “she’s arrogant and aloof.” I expected to meet an entourage of aides or at least some security. Instead I found Genevieve and Chinny sunk into the wicker chairs on the outdoor patio of the grill room, unconcerned by the fact that the wait staff was freaking out about her presence. Chinny sipped a glass of ice water. Genevieve was lost in her favorite past time, the game Candy Crush, which she plays religiously.
It is hard not to fixate on her obvious beauty, but the most powerful aspect of Genevieve is her ability to read and control the emotional tone of any interaction. It’s a skill that has been mastered by American celebrities and politicians living in a society where public opinion matters, but unsharpened in Nigeria’s more prominent personalities who dominate an environment where worship is expected, not earned. Genevieve’s emotional intelligence stems from what she calls a strong connection to real people in Nigeria. One need only visit her Instagram feed with its over 1.5 million, mostly Nigerian, followers devouring her posts that capture a mix of the mundane, the glamorous, and the aspirational life. Almost all of her posts receive tens of thousands of likes, engagement numbers that would make even the most global of celebrities jealous. I experienced this power personally when I posted a picture of myself jokingly kneeling down before her in a mock proposal at the Nigeria Beasts of No Nation premier. Within minutes I had received hundreds of followers, and many more comments wishing us well.
“I’m one of the masses, and I’m a Nigerian. I’m self employed. [I] continue to run my own businesses here and there…” Genevieve told me during one of our numerous conversations. “I’ve done something with myself – by God’s Grace – because luckily he gave me a gift and I had the wisdom to discover that gift, and I used it to my advantage.” While it is clear that her acting talent has propelled her rise and will help to maintain her influential presence in Nollywood for some time to come, Genevieve’s assent and continued relevance will likely have more to do with her desire to test limits, especially through filmmaking, in a country that has only just recognized the importance of the creative economy.
For all the glamour and fame that presently surrounds her, Ihunanya Genevieve Nnaji, who turned 37 on May 3rd, comes from a relatively ordinary Nigerian, middle class existence. She is the fifth of eight children born to an engineer father from Mbaise, Imo State in the South Eastern Igbo region of Nigeria and a schoolteacher mother who sometimes engaged in petty trading. She grew up in the Surulere neighborhood of Lagos, which has always been a solidly middle class enclave in a city run by the wealthy and dominated by the extremely poor.
“I was a tomboy. I had three brothers right behind me. My sisters were too busy with themselves – you know how elder sisters are. I played football on the street,” Genevieve told me. She also used to engage in fistfights with the boys who lived in her compound. “I got into a fight with a neighbor of mine who was a boy and I beat him up… I was six years old. We were mates and he was fat. He definitely asked for it and he got it,” she said. She told me her home was a traditional Igbo household where her mother acted as the primary disciplinarian. “My dad was the kind of person you didn’t want to speak to you because you would actually feel the disappointment that you are at that time,” she said. “In fact he had a way of – its not even pleading to your conscience – I think it’s a silent threat to your conscience.” At the same time her household was very liberal when it came to her studies and artistic pursuits. As a child Genevieve participated in plays at school and church. “I watched a lot of TV as a child, so I think I was pretty much screen trained. Of course there was no Nigerian cinema then, so everything was on TV,” she said. As a primary school student she excelled in the arts, painting and even producing a comic book series that became very popular in her school. “I would have my classmates bombard me to write the next one while they were reading,” she told me.
Genevieve’s comfortable, even idyllic, childhood changed dramatically when she turned 12 and her father lost his job at the construction equipment supplier Caterpillar because of tribal discrimination. He also lost a subsequent job at the Nnamdi Azikiwe founded African Continental Bank when it collapsed in 1991. Forced to curtail expenditures, her family moved from Surulere to Egbeda, closer the Lagos, Ogun State border. Where once Genevieve and her siblings enjoyed their father’s assigned staff car and driver to take them to and from school, they now found themselves “trekking” to school and spending their afternoons helping their mother sell provisions to make up for lost income while her father searched for work. “She traded, she sold stuff, she got her children to sell stuff for her and we had to. We had no choice. We were living in her house. We cried,” Genevieve said. “She did things you needed to do at that time. Your friends are not doing it. Why should you be the one to be doing it? You’re embarrassed about it, but I’m grateful for that because I think if I wasn’t even given that chance to be humble, I probably wouldn’t appreciate what I have today and understand that it doesn’t make me better than the next person. And [I] just know that everyone is equal and everyone is entitled to love and respect,” Genevieve told me.
At the same time, in what could be interpreted as push to escape the intensity of daily life, Genevieve began to pay more attention to the acting she saw on television. When she turned 16, Nollywood was still in its infancy. The Chris Obi Rapu film Living in Bondage, which is widely credited with bringing real attention to the new entertainment phenomenon, was only a few years old. “But then Nollywood was pretty new and I was watching one of the films back then—I can’t remember the title—and this was me watching another actress, and in my mind I was criticizing how she was performing: ‘No that’s not the reaction she’s supposed to be having to that line.’ I was thinking ‘Oh, I would have done it this way’ or ‘No, I can do this!’ and it’s deep in your gut that you actually know, you actually believe you can. There’s no doubt about it, no questions about it. That was when I realized that I had interest. Did I ever think I would do it as a profession? I don’t think so.”
Her original intention to read Law or English at the University of Lagos, morphed into a major in Creative and Performing Arts. Then she landed a small part in the film Most Wanted.“My role was to interview Regina Askia, a former beauty queen turned actress who was a goddess at that time. That was major. I had to pull it off as a pro and I did it, and the producers asked me if I had done it before and I said no. They were amazed at my confidence—probably I had some training in church or something— but I remember I enjoyed doing it,” Genevieve told me. After this performance, she quickly landed other roles. At the end of her first year in university, stressed by the triple load of acting, coursework and modeling, and frustrated by the continuous strikes plaguing the university system, she made the decision to leave school to pursue acting full time. “My dad didn’t find it funny,” she said. “He wasn’t happy about it, but I kind of reassured him that I would go back, that it wasn’t over. He was mostly concerned about the amount of exposure film was going to bring me, coming from a very conservative, almost prudish home of a Catholic Igbo family.”
Since then, Genevieve has starred in over 80 Nollywood productions for which she has gained domestic and international acclaim, including resounding praise from Oprah Winfrey. The resulting fame and lucrative endorsement deals on products ranging from makeup to watches, a reported multi-million Naira contract to represent Range Rover in Nigeria and a brand ambassadorship for telecommunications giant Etisalat has lead to enormous financial success. She is often listed as one of Nigeria’s wealthiest celebrities and enjoys the fancy cars, the immaculately appointed house in upscale Ikoyi and the trips to exotic locations that are the trappings of celebrity life. She is also thoroughly allergic to any discussion of her earning power or wealth. “Even the kind of car I drive right now cannot give me that kind of joy that my first ride gave me,” Genevieve told me. “I must have a minimum of my first salary in my wallet — two thousand Naira. I can have more, but that’s the minimum. It was my first salary. It’s dear to my heart. That was my welcome fee into the world of entrepreneurship. It’s just there. I love it. I spent more than that to get the two thousand though on transport faire, cause by the time they tell you to go and come back so many times, you’ve spent way more than that, but that was who I was. I worked for it. I have to get paid for it. I’d probably squander every money that is dashed to me, but the one I would sweat for, I don’t play with,” she said. “I don’t talk money because I want people to focus on work,” she told me as we sat on the white leather couches in her living room. Her fluffy white dog, a Brichone-Frise, Lahsa mix named Prince lounged by her feet on the white shag carpet. “Money is not good for creative people. I don’t value myself materially. Take everything,” she said.
In 2011, Genevieve’s production output slowed to one film per year from a career average of four to five films per year. Many in the industry interpreted this as the antics of arrogant, local movie star with her eyes set on international, Hollywood fame. It is easy to see how that impression formed. Between 2011 and 2014, Genevieve’s on-camera work consisted of a role in the universally panned Hollywood adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s award winning novel Half of A Yellow Sun where she acted with international stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton. She also worked with the American actors Isaiah Washington and Vivica Fox in Dr. Bello, the Nollywood-Hollywood mash up about a Nigerian spiritual healer who cures a dying boy of cancer. Neither production received the recognition necessary to make Nigerian films about Nigerian subjects more accessible to an audience beyond Africans and the diaspora. During that same period, Genevieve was approached by Chinny Onwugbenu, an ambitious young graduate of the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles. Chinny and her sister had just launched MUD, a makeup line for African women and they were looking for a prominent celebrity to be the face of a new campaign. Chinny, who grew up in Nigeria before attending university in the United States is an incredibly direct, no-nonsense business woman and entrepreneur with an intense dislike of the spotlight. She often sports a bob and designer glasses with her understated but clearly style conscious wardrobe. Where Genevieve sees the world in stories and images, Chinny sees numbers and balance sheets. She and Genevieve are natural counterparts and behave like sisters, often yabbing each other about everything from clothing to relationships.
“It was business before friendship. We became friends during that whole [campaign] process and we share the same values. We want the same things, I think,” Chinny told me when I asked her why her partnership with Genevieve works. “She doesn’t play when it comes to her craft. I respected that from the first time we worked together. She had a 6 AM call for two or three days and yet she was very tired, but there was that integrity with the work, like ‘I don’t play around with this stuff; I’m going to give it my all.’ ” Their initial collaboration turned into a lasting partnership where Chinny now manages what she calls the “business of Genevieve,” helping to create a structure for Genevieve’s multifaceted career. Their partnership also led Chinny back to UCLA to for a short course on the film industry as both a creative space and an economic engine. The two ladies eventually formed The Entertainment Network or TEN, a production company that Chinny calls fundamentally Nigerian first. “We’re embracing the term Nollywood,” Chinny told me. “I think it’s unfair that people disassociate themselves from it. They have to be a part of something. No matter how powerful you are or how rich you are, we all come from somewhere, and I think for Nigerian filmmakers, you are privileged to be a part of Nollywood.” At the same time, during her hiatus Genevieve and Chinny made a conscious decision not to take on more Nollywood projects, many of which they felt did not live up to the creative promise of Nigerian talent. For Genevieve, taking a step back was also a matter of personal and professional growth. “Individually, every artist owes it to themselves to grow and we weren’t getting that,” Chinny told me. “[Genevieve] would be like, ‘If I have been standing my ground for so long, why not leave it till I know somebody out there is going to bring the right platform, the right product and I will gladly be a part of that?’ So I said, ‘Why don’t we create the right product or platform?’ ”
If TEN is the platform, then The Road to Yesterday is the first product. With a reported budget of over 150 million Naira, it was a large gamble for a pair that had acting talent and business acumen but precious little behind the camera production experience. On account of its larger budget and higher production value, the film has been classified as part of the neo-Nollywood movement, occupying a space next to recently released films like Kunle Afolayan’s enormously expensive (by Nollywood standards) 320 million-Naira budget, October 1. Neo-Nollywood is essentially the Nigerian film industry emerging from its adolescence of producing as many stories as cheaply and rapidly as possible and moving into improved storytelling, acting, and more sophisticated production aided by technological advances that allow filmmakers to do much more while spending a lot less. It is an acknowledgement that Nollywood’s global footprint demands more of the industry, especially when the competition is the billion dollar studios of Bollywood and Hollywood.
Genevieve’s The Road to Yesterday is a contemporary story about how relationships struggle with the shifting mores of a globally exposed and frantically changing modern Nigeria. Addressing complicated issues like love, infidelity and gendered double standards when it comes to male and female attitudes towards sex, The Road to Yesterday is in many ways Genevieve’s first foray into feminist commentary and the struggle for women’s equality in a society firmly invested in patriarchal dominance. It could also just be a love story embedded in a thriller set to a timeless journey narrative played out along the thoroughfares of peri-urban Lagos.
“I’m someone who’s dark a lot of the time,” Genevieve told me when I asked about how the narrative developed. “I just wonder a lot. My mind really travels a lot and I think during one of these mind journeys of mine, I was wondering about the thin line between life and death and I was thinking about something my mom had told me, stories in the family and stories from random people about how their loved ones who have passed, have appeared to them, right before they passed or the time they’re passing.” Chinny made Genevieve write the story down, and then the pair began shopping for screen writers who could translate the story into as screen play. They initially worked with a talented Canadian screenwriter but found that he could not adequately capture the nuances of Nigerian life. A subsequent search for local screenwriters led them to Ishaya Bako, a 27-year old, UK-educated, Nigerian screenwriter and documentary filmmaker whose controversial short film, Braids on A Bald Head, about sexual identity in Northern Nigeria earned him international recognition and acclaim. (Note: I have known Ishaya Bako personally and professionally for four years). Ishaya, who runs the production company Amateur Heads, was initially wary. “It was tricky because you have the story from her, and then she’s producing as well, and she’s a star as well, so it’s like there’s [only] so much I can do – just like a lot of control and power vested in her.” Ishaya told me. Ishaya, who comes from Kogi state and often sports a full beard, is a fury of moody creative energy and quick wit that worked well with the informal but results-oriented attitudes held by Genevieve and Chinny. Where a script can take months to produce, Ishaya spent four weeks reworking the storyline and screenplay before the team decided to shift into production mode. The Road to Yesterday was Ishaya’s first full-length feature as both screenwriter and director. He asked for more time to get the script and production prepared but Genevieve and Chinny were anxious to get started.
“It was a disaster. After like ten days we had to call a recess and start all over again,” Chinny told me. She said, “It was tough to make that decision because to make that decision meant to throw away the footage that we had made already. But it was either that or we bring out a shady product on [Genevieve’s] first production, on her own come-back movie. We didn’t want to compromise on any of that and still we still needed to tell the story the right way, so we stopped, took a break, put certain things in place and then we came back and everybody came back in like a renewed vigor and said ‘Let’s really do this.” It was a lot of hard work.”
One of the things put in place was Chi-Chi Nwoko, a Nigerian New Yorker and the experienced production executive who had successfully developed and produced Nigerian Idol, the franchise of the popular international on-air talent show. Chi-Chi has long kinky braids, a disarming smile, and a soft-edged Nigerian American accent that fits perfectly with the modern parenting that she practices (her children call her and her husband by their first names) but that contrasts completely with the reputation of workaholic task master able to optimize a drifting production. Her presence completely changed the dynamic on set. “She really got everyone together, especially during the recess, and [brought] some more hands on deck that we needed. And she was doing this while pregnant, with a two year old by her side!” Chinny told me. “She was like on fire, waking up at 5 AM, calling people, making sure that people are going to be there at call time… and that kind of dedication is rare to see. It just wakes you up…” Ishaya concurred.
In March of 2015, I attended a late night script run through for The Road to Yesterday at the Lekki Offices of Chinny’s company MUD. I arrived just before 11 PM to find Genevieve, Chinny, Chi-Chi and Ishaya all huddled together in a small office with Oris Erhuero, the film’s male lead, who had just flown in from London. Oris, who was clearly the odd man out in this gathering, is a physically imposing man with an action hero’s squared shoulders, a narrow waist and a perfectly kept, unkempt set of twists in his jet black hair. He busied himself studying the script while standing in the only uncluttered corner of the office. An air conditioner struggled to cool the tiny space and an open bottle of wine sat next to a stack of plastic cups on a rickety desk. The team had been awake since 5 AM that morning. They faced at least another three hours of work before another early morning call the next day. Genevieve and Oris went through the motions of a scene where the young couple engages in a lovers’ spat before kissing and making up. Ishaya sat on a low press board cabinet holding the script shaking his head. He was not impressed. “Let’s do this again,” he said. Genevieve began to giggle. Ishaya’s scowl soon cracked into a smile and Chinny began filling the plastic cups with wine. Soon the whole room was a mess of punchy, fatigued laughter as they took a thoroughly welcomed break. Then without warning Genevieve said, “I’m ready,” stepped back into character and said, “Lets get back to work.”
For Nigerian born but UK raised Erhuero, who began his 25 year acting career in Los Angeles before leaving to pursue independent films because of a lack of positive roles for black men, this was his first time working in Nollywood. Despite the crazy hours and sometimes improvised solutions to problems on set, he found it exciting to work with the industry’s biggest star. “First of all it, was an incredible feeling returning home. I haven’t been to Nigeria in almost 30 years. I was in Nigeria from the ages of five to 13, so she kind of opened this door to another world I never really saw coming or knew existed. I saw the old Hollywood, the reason why a lot of us wanted to act, working with Genevieve – the passion, the joy, the teamwork, just fighting over beautiful moments to create beautiful moments,” Erhuero told me. Having acted in films like Raul Peck’s award winning Patrice Lumumba biopic, Erhuero was most impressed with the work ethic and perseverance of the whole team which he credits to Genevieve’s passion and the synergistic relationship of Chinny, Ishaya and Chi-Chi. Ishaya told me that one of the key facilitators of a smooth time on set was Genevieve’s ability to quickly absorb a script and her staying power as they dealt with challenges ranging from faulty equipment to security personnel trying to shut down their shoot. Chi-Chi told me that working with Genevieve it was “ very easy for you to forget that she’s supposed to be this ‘person.’ Immediately you think you’re just working with a colleague. She speaks her mind. She knows what she wants. She’s not apologetic about it, and from a business perspective, she’s definitely a go-getter. She’s a hard worker. She’s involved. She understands the business, and even though she has the element of ‘I’m the star,’ she’s still very down to earth.”
For Genevieve, making The Road to Yesterday was exactly the sort of unexpected, challenge filled experience that has helped to shape her career and her person. “I made this film because I realize people grow and move on. Things change in their life, but they don’t expect things to change in yours. People don’t expect that you are human because you are a superstar. In other words, you can’t grow, learn, and make mistakes. They don’t expect those normal things from you. You are expected to know it all because you are famous,” she told me.
Despite, or perhaps because of the mistakes and challenges, as a test case for the newly conceived TEN, The Road to Yesterday caused quite a stir. At the end of the AFRIFF screening, the audience stood to applaud the cast and crew. As they exited some viewers murmured that this was indeed a game changer. In wide release, The Road to Yesterdayreceived generally positive if somewhat critical reviews but it is unclear whether or not the film was a box office success. For Genevieve, however, the point was not to make money but to forge a new path for herself as an actor, producer and media entrepreneur while also taking the industry in a new direction. The success of the production in this regard has led industry behemoths like DSTV and Africa Magic to take note and express serious interest in the projects TEN and Genevieve are currently developing. Chinny told me that she and Genevieve felt “like we’re making a difference with TEN. We get to work with a lot of young talent—even old talent that has not been given the opportunity. We want to respect everybody that can contribute something to Nollywood, so that just allowed us to do this kind of thing, to open up TEN to bring that on. We have a slate of projects that I’m excited about now… and people are going to get work, and if this our own way of contributing to the economy, then why not?”
It has been a long journey for Genevieve, a nearly twenty-year career that has required her to develop a Nigerian movie star aesthetic and build a path where no one has walked. “Entertainment is new in this country. It was new when I started. The celebrity lifestyle—obviously, there was no blueprint to how things worked,” Genevieve told me during our last conversation at her Ikoyi residence. When I asked her earlier about her role models she said, “I didn’t set out trying to be the next somebody, to be like this person. I just set out to do something that I didn’t understand, but something my heart wanted, something that comes out from within, and I just wanted to be given the chance to let it out and express myself.” Genevieve’s commitment to individuality drives her understanding of her place as a cultural icon and economic force in the Nigerian creative space. “I am me, but I am also conscious of the fact that am being watched. I have a responsibility not just to myself but to young people,” she told me. “I didn’t set out to be anybody’s role model but you grow up, you grow into yourself and become aware of how much impact you can have on the lives of other people. I don’t take it for granted and I believe in setting an example. That’s all I’m trying to do. I’m not saying I’m a saint or I’m going to be perfect. But I’ve learned that acknowledging my imperfections and my mistakes has enabled me to become wiser and smarter in the choices I make in my life. For me it’s all about being true to yourself. When you do that you will never be a ‘wanna be’, you will be who you want to be.”
This piece is part of Ventures Africa’s 2016 African Innovation Series. The full digital issue, can be found here.