Gangs Of Lagos: A roller coaster ride of thrill and emotions

A story of a dream delayed, not denied

Emmanuel Tjiya S Mag Editor-in-chief
The cast of Gangs of Lagos with director Jade Osiberu at the premiere in Nigeria.
The cast of Gangs of Lagos with director Jade Osiberu at the premiere in Nigeria.
Image: Supplied

Nigerian auteur Jáde Osiberu’s gritty crime thriller Gangs of Lagos is as terrifying as it is terrific. Serving as Prime Video’s first African original, the running time, just over two hours, demands commitment and concentration from viewers. But Osiberu understood the assignment, calling for your undivided attention in every edit. For the most part the film is pacy, tight and riveting. 

The masterful and multi-hyphenate filmmaker is unwavering in dialling up the surrealistic violence and gruesome revenge fantasy, sending the audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride of terror, tears and thrill. The performances are unflinching with Tobi Bakre, Adesua Etomi-Wellington, Chike Osebuka and Tayo Faniran giving it their all.

But theatre actor Olarotimi Fakunle as ruthless gang leader Kazeem (dubbed by Osiberu as the Denzel Washington of Nigeria) leaves a lasting mark – and, frankly, steals the show. The visual language communicated through bold light, delicate colours and stunning shots positions is high up on the best African films ever made.

The music and wardrobe effortlessly become another driving force in the narrative. The action and fight sequences are 100% brutal, exhilarating and choreographed to perfection.

Adesua Etomi-Wellington as Gift in Gangs Of Lagos.
Adesua Etomi-Wellington as Gift in Gangs Of Lagos.
Image: supplied

While the film can be recognised for being genre-specific, there is no shying away from the aestheticisation of violence. I watch the film on my flight to Nigeria, a day before the world premiere. When I touch down at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, my first time in the region, I’m frightened by the visuals in the film. Then I start the recall what I’ve read in the press about political instability, organised crime and violence – I start to panic. Maybe I should turn back? 

Gangs of Lagos paints a dreary image of Isale Eko (the location it is set) that from an SA lens can be described as the Soweto of the vibrant city. It is linked to neighbouring business hub of Lagos Victoria Island and affluent Ikoyi, where I stayed for the duration of my trip. 

“I’m sure you went past there (Isale Eko) and didn’t even realise,” replies Wangi MBA-Uzoukwu, head of Nigerian Originals at Prime Video, when I criticise the film’s malevolence.

“Film takes creative licence... It’s not like if you go to Isale Eko you are going to see people wearing black and carrying guns,” Mba-Uzoukwu continues. “Beyond that there is still a story of harmony and emotion. It’s all creative licence, it’s not like that on the streets of Nigeria. The main thing I’m hoping to get from the film is the heart and soul... that’s the biggest takeaway.”

Ned Mitchell, head of African and Middle East Originals at Prime Video, echoes those words.

Nomzamo Mbatha at the Gangs Of Lagos premiere in Nigeria.
Nomzamo Mbatha at the Gangs Of Lagos premiere in Nigeria.
Image: Supplied

“The world has seen certain aspects of Nigeria before in films from Nollywood, mostly told in British English and having a certain type of lifestyle, but it’s not always about the wealthy. Everyone around them never gets their stories told... This is just one of those stories,” Mitchell says.

The central premise dramatises how a dream delayed is not a dream denied. The film depicts the hustle and bustle of Isale Eko through the gaze of three childhood friends Obalola (Bakre), Gift (Etomi-Wellington) and Ify (Osebuka) with big dreams. But their destiny takes an unexpected turn after their surrogate father Nino (Faniran) is brutally killed. Fast-forward to their adulthood, the trio navigate a life of gangsterism in an attempt to avenge Nino’s death, to devastating results.

For Osiberu the film, she co-produced with Kemi Lala Akindoju and Akin Omotoso, has been 10 years in the making. An undercurrent theme is strong female roles anchored by Etomi-Wellington, Bimbo Ademoye, Chioma Akpotha and Iyabo Ojo.

“Historically, my first film Isoken centred on a woman and then next was Sugar Rush, with three women. I’m obsessed with women, but this is the first time where men are in the lead,” Osiberu shares.

“It’s mainly because of how I grew up and my mom was a big part of my upbringing. She’s an independent woman and she has seven sisters. They are all fiercely independent and powerful. I don’t know women who are damsels.”

The lead male stars, pop star Osebuka and Big Brother Naija 2018 finalist Bakre do not take this big break for granted.

Image: Supplied

“ I feel blessed and it’s not something I chased after. I see people sending audition tapes, because it’s tough out there. I’ve seen friends and girlfriends who are actors,” Osebuka says. 

Another standout is the symbolism behind the character of Gift’s hair story. 

“When we meet Gift, it’s almost like she has this hair covering her face. It’s like we know her, but we also don’t know her,” Etomi-Wellington observes. “She’s almost like the wind, when she comes in she storms in and then she goes back to play with her friends. But when a major character in the story dies, her face is completely open, all bets are off and she’s ready for war. 

“She means business and she wants everyone to know I’m the one who killed you, just showing that strength and feeling the need to not hide. I also like the hairstyle that was chosen, it’s so important in the movement and fights. It’s feminine but also so strong.”

Osiberu adds in terms of Gift’s wardrobe selections: “It was so important for us to style her as a sexy and edgy badass because when you see female gangsters you might think tomboy.”

The red carpet was rolled out for the star-studded premiere with anyone from SA screen siren Nomzamo Mbatha to musician-cum-politician Banky W (married to Etomi-Wellington) and media personality Toke Makinwa in attendance. Osiberu’s royal father, His Royal Highness Oba Adewale Osiberu, also had cameras flashing. 

As for my first time in Lagos, it was fabulous, but it was no average experience of Nigeria. I was privileged to move with private security and a driver.

Read more about my experience, including an unexpected date with African textile queen Nike Davies-Okundaye, in the youth issue of SMag, out in June. 

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