#Lionheart and the Metaphor of the Possible

NIGERIA is notorious for her belief in the indestructibility of a project that everybody purports to hate, dislike, disavow or disown. Somewhere in the core of the Nigerian psyche lies the belief that we are the only people on earth whose country will always survive our unquenchable hate, bitterness, and hostility expressed along our three most intractable fault lines: ethnicity, faith, and political affiliation, worsened by the democracy of social media and the conquest of that space by millennials – Nigeria’s most populous demographic – who no dey look Uche face.

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However, I do not believe that Nigeria could have survived another week of hatredvaganza and the attendant cursefest that has happened upon us because of the presidential election season had art and the artist not intervened this week to do what they have done for humanity and society since the beginning of time: provide instrumental catharsis and place in front of  a society on the brink of implosion through self-inflicted injuries a mirror showing pathways of the possible.

That is the symbolic role that Nigeria’s cultural icon, Genevieve Nnaji, played this week with the release of her new movie, #Lionheart, on Netflix. I do not intend to explore the plot of the movie here. Go and watch it like millions of Nigerians have already done. When you are done watching it, join the commentariat on social media who have been busy dissecting scenes, characters, and other elements of the movie in a moment of national cultural jouissance that has united home and diaspora. My intervention is necessitated by a pattern of misses I have noticed so far in the social media commentary.

To celebrate this movie as an auspicious union of aesthetic genius and thematic brio is to make the undertstatement of the century. However, I fear that our folks are missing its deeper, symbolic metaphors. By far the most significant statement – and this may end up becoming Genevieve Nnaji’s most consequential contribution to the destiny of her country – happens when Ada (Ms. Nnaji’s character) sits across from Alhaji Maikano in his mansion in Kano and tries to sell him the idea of a merger between their two families’ transportation companies. She reels out a list of pros (no cons) before ending it with this statement: “most importantly, we share the same values”.

It is a testimony to Ms. Nnaji’s genius as a filmmaker that her character leaves those values undefined and unpacked. Precisely because the values are left hanging and undefined, the movie invites the audience into a rewarding hermeneutic exercise. You will have to plunge into the depth of the work’s entire symbolic remit, which operates as a multilayered world of significations, to fill in the gaps and define what the movie offers as “the same values” uniting Enugu and Kano.

In past public lectures in Nigeria, especially in a lecture I delivered in Lagos when Pastor Tunde Bakare invited me to reflect on “the soul of Nigeria” on the occasion of Nigeria’s 53rd independence anniversary in 2013, I have always maintained that “Project Nigeria” has remained inchoate because we have not been able to fill it up with concrete referents, values, and ethos the way certain referents about the nature, character, ideals of the following countries automatically come to mind at the mention of “the American dream”, “German efficiency”, “Japanese Kaizen”.

Just what is the philosophical content of Project Nigeria? You look at #Lionheart and you see how the movie explores resilience, tenacity, industry, innovation, and cooperation as the foundation of the Nigerian spirit. We don’t have it there but art is projecting and taking us into the realm of the possible. One defining ideal of the French nation lies in the aphorism, “impossible, c’est pas français”. The word, impossible, is not a French citizen. Thematically, #Lionheart is saying that impossible may well-nigh not be a citizen of France, possible is a 100% NAFDAC-certified citizen of Nigeria, a shon of the shoil and daughter of Nigerian earth. Possible is Lionheart Transport Company. Her trials are ours, her challenges are ours, the resilience, tenacity, and indomitable spirit which eventuate in the company’s triumph are all ours.

#Lionheart’s pan-Nigerian project does not happen in a vacuum. Not since Chinua Achebe have I encountered such a masterful handling of the Igbo world. This happens through the modernity, sophistication, and, also, simplicity of one family. Through this Igbo family’s speech acts, culinary aesthetics, and other gestures towards valuation of the Igbo cultural habitus even in the context of wealth and modernity, Genevieve Nnaji is talking directly to the occupants of Nigeria’s Republic of ethnic hate and bitterness. Look at this beautiful Igbo world. Look at this beautiful Igbo culture. Why should such beauty and human phatic communion inspire fear, hostility, and hatred in you? Dem no dey appreciate beauty for your family?

Before you misread this part of things, remember that this work is a grand metaphor. It is addressing the merchants of ethnic and cultural hate on all sides of the Nigerian experiment. How can you look at the beautiful and sympathetic portraiture of the Maikanos and their culture and stil roam social media spewing hate and bigotry against the Hausa-Fulani? Or the Yoruba? Or the Tiv? Or the Ijaw? Or any other group. Again, this work is grand metaphor of the beauty of us, all us in the singularity of our ethno-cultural worlds.

#Lionheart is also an argument for the indissociability of culture from modernity. Colonial hangovers and poor education have combined to create a severe crisis of alienation in Nigeria – and that is one of the impediments to injecting enduring content into Project Nigeria. We have at least two generations of Nigerians who think of their culture and tradition – especially their language – as mutually exclusive with modernity and civilization. I have spent nearly two decades teaching Japanese, Chinese, and South Korean kids in Canadian and American Universities. Whether they are born here or are immigrants, the first thing you notice is their mastery of their mothertongue.

Our own kids arrive here from Lagos and Abuja unable to utter a word of their mothertongue. Those who have minimal competence will speak Igbo or Yoruba or Hausa through their noses. I am no longer surprised because many Nigerians who have never been to an airport speak what I have nicknamed LAFA – locally acquired foreign accent. You will see some of my own Yoruba people speaking LAFA in Ibadan, throwing the H-factor all over the place while speaking Americana through the nose.

#Lionheart says: look at these two sophisticated Igbo and Hausa families, totally immersed in their languages and cultures. Does this take anything away from their sophistication and modernity? Your language and culture are not incompatible with postmodernity. That is what the Asian tigers have taught us. That is what #Lionheart is telling you, Nigerian!

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