Blood Sisters and Another Nollywood Ówàḿbẹ̀

*Some initial reflections on the movie.

In Netflix’s Nigerian original series, Blood Sisters, directed by Biyi Bandele and Jeremiah Gyang, Ówáḿbẹ̀ is once again thematically affirmed and reengaged as a collective praxis of social celebration, one that enables an endless reproduction of an economy of pleasures in Postcolonial Lagos.  Ówàḿbẹ̀ is Nigeria’s flamboyant party culture which is marked by colorful displays, lavish food, and tensions over sartorial dominance. Ówáḿbẹ̀ in Blood Sisters and indeed in recent Nollywood films is a gift that keeps giving. It emerges as a cultural anchor for the exploration of urban merrymaking and the intimate connections between pleasure and the politics of class and family. I explored this topic at length in a 2021 journal article that sought to make sense of the cultural value of partying in three Lagos-themed films, The Bling Lagosians, Chief Daddy, and The Wedding Party—with the last produced from Mo Abudu’s EbonyLife Studios which is also behind this new four-part thriller on Netflix. Ówáḿbẹ̀ and its associated aesthetics of display and ostentation in these films operate as the means by which familial bonds are tested and rediscovered. In several other films, Ówàḿbẹ̀ figures prominently as the social context for familial connections or even the concealment of kinship desires.

Describing Nollywood’s tendency “to make moral logic the basis of its dramatic logic,” Jonathan Haynes argues that Nollywood films often present moral choices as the most immanent human concern. “If Nollywood is fundamentally this-worldly, Haynes continues, “the most important things in its world are marriages and families.”  Ówàḿbẹ̀ is a pertinent social stage where these moral choices are dramatized. Blood Sisters similarly uses Ówàḿbẹ̀ to inform the story of best friends Sarah (Ini Dima Okojie) and Kemi (Nancy Isime) as they both prepare for Sarah’s lavish wedding party.

Blood Sisters. Netflix.

Sarah is betrothed to the rich and pampered Kola (Deyemi Okanlawon) who has a history of violence towards Sarah and his past lovers. After hitting Sarah on their wedding day, she tries to call off the wedding, but the pressures of her economically precarious family compel her to stay. Just before the traditional engagement itself, Kemi finds Kola beating Sarah and inadvertently kills him, both in defense of herself and Sarah. The friends must find a way to bury Kola’s body and run away. The audience, faced with a police procedural movie that depicts gender violence and corruption, is invited to follow the girls through various hideouts in the city, as Sarah and Kemi flee from Kola’s unforgiving mum and a police institution she has in her pockets. At this point the narrative reveals the various dramas that initially set the stage for Kola’s violent tendencies and that result in his death and later those of his family members. It is in this sense that Blood Sisters may be read as a pastiche of both the familiar and the strangely thrilling melodramas of the Lagos elite family. It continues that fascination in New Nollywood to redeem narratives of African victimhood, by presenting Ówáḿbẹ̀ as one way to understand what it means for people to play, enjoy, and have fun, despite the debilitating conditions in which they often find themselves.

Blood Sisters also appears to reinforce a desire to sell Nigeria to a global audience using studio-based production models, and partnerships with streaming platforms like Netflix, and telling universal stories, which revolve around domestic violence, dysfunctional families, and friendship; but the organizing rubric for all of these is the Ówáḿbẹ̀ and its dramatization of family conflicts. The Ówáḿbẹ̀ sets the condition for the deconstruction of the prevalently negative representation of Nigeria, with a solid cinematic form of its disavowal emerging in Blood Sisters.

But family dramas and Ówàḿbẹ̀ also point in the directions of class politics. This is one way Blood Sisters also resembles the several Ówàḿbẹ̀ movies before it. Whether it is Mopelola in The Bling Lagosians whose party can only be attended by the one percent of the one percent elite of Lagos, or The Wedding Party‘s Mrs. Onwuka who believes Dozie is marrying into a family that is beneath her class, the enactments of social class is always a familiar guest in the Ówàḿbẹ̀-based Nollywood  movie.

Blood Sisters follows the same logic of class and its discontents. Sarah is being pressured into marriage with a violent man because to support her parents’ business, while Kenny (Ibrahim Suleiman) her former, lower-class boyfriend pleads unsuccessfully with her to ditch Kola. But Ówàḿbẹ̀  itself is a space of possibilities, sometimes open to the presence and aspirations of lower-class people, despite the elite policing of the Ówàḿbẹ̀ social ecology. Femi, Kola’s brother (Gabriel Afolayan) knows that the non-elite can indeed gain access to the most prestigious Ówàḿbẹ̀ and uses that knowledge as the basis of his own initial plot to kill Kola. My point here is that Ówàḿbẹ̀ has a certain ambivalence that makes it possible for it to manifest a tense contact space for the rich and the poor, despite the various elite strategies that foreclose such interactions. At a spatial level, the film also offers a cinematic exploration of urban Lagos that makes the politics of class legible through real and reel places like Maroko, a large low-income community with half the population on water and half on land.

When Kola’s mother asks Femi to kill the girls to mark his desired ascendancy to family headship in the final scene of the film, he hesitates and his sister, Timeyin, emerging as a hero, offers to do the job. In the end, she shoots Uncle B (Ramsey Noah), presenting the girls with an escape route. Unlike the Ówáḿbẹ̀  movies before it, though, the convivial environment of the party culture merely activates the narrative of Blood Sisters, not necessarily developed throughout the plot. In that instance, Ówáḿbẹ̀—It is there—is less about the assertion of the sociality of a playful self or presence than an avowal of the human will to escape the spectral forces of death. So, when Kemi, escaping from Uncle B, sees some Yorùbá masquerades dancing on their way to her grandmother’s town, she is unable to protect Sarah from the trauma of  Kenny’s death. Or from the agonies of a celebration of life and leisure that suddenly turns tragic. As film audiences, we are supposed to witness a wedding party but there has been a death in the family. Only the dance of the mask is permitted.

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