By Manori Ranvindran
Nigeria’s entertainment industry, known as Nollywood, has been thriving for years — it’s the second biggest film industry after Hollywood — but a truly international, mainstream hit in the orbit of a “Squid Game” or “Money Heist” has so far been elusive.
For a long time, that’s boiled down to a proclivity for insular stories that couldn’t easily travel beyond Nigerian viewership, combined with low production values. But all of that is set to change as Nigerian storytelling targets a more global audience, and streaming backers like Netflix direct resources into premium programming from the country’s top producers.
Netflix’s first Nigerian original TV series, “Blood Sisters,” embodies the market potential that’s in store. The four-part thriller comes from prolific producer Mo Abudu’s EbonyLife Studios, and you’d be hard-pressed to walk away from its explosive premiere episode.
Set in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, “Blood Sisters” follows best friends Sarah (Ini Dima Okojie) and Kemi (Nancy Isime) as they prepare for the former’s grand wedding. What should be a happy day, however, is spoiled by groom Kola’s (Deyemi Okanlawon) abusive tendencies towards Sarah, and when she tries to call off the wedding, her family pressures her to stay in order to support their business.
The big day becomes a bigger nightmare, however, when Kemi discovers Kola beating her up and accidentally kills him while trying to defend her friend — all mere minutes before the wedding.
An infectious mix of melodrama, dark humor and social commentary, the show serves up an authentic depiction of Nigerian culture that’s also telling a very universal story. You only need to glimpse the week’s headlines to know that women’s rights and domestic abuse are still endemic global issues.
“It’s a very important signpost for us to be doing this project at this point in time,” Abudu tells Variety. “It’s about what local stories can become global, and we believe this one can.”
Abudu, one of Africa’s leading media moguls, turned EbonyLife, the upscale Black TV network she launched in 2013, into a vast media empire that’s produced more than 5,000 hours of original content, including one of the highest grossing Nigerian films of all time, “The Wedding Party” (2016).
She’s got a multi-title deal with Netflix in place, as well as a first-look deal with Sony Pictures Television and a development pact with BBC Studios. She’s also got projects in development with AMC; Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith’s Westbrook Studios; and Will Packer Productions.
“Blood Sisters,” however, feels like a graduation of sorts for her production banner, EbonyLife Studios. Abudu says the project was closely developed with Netflix, which helped reshape her team’s original 13-part idea into a four-part limited series.
“The themes are universal — you’re dealing with domestic abuse, dysfunctional families — but it’s actually something we’ve taken ownership of, using our culture and our traditions to tell the story in a way that makes it more authentic,” says Abudu.
“We want it to do well in Nigeria, because of course it’s a very Nigerian story, but we believe the world is ready to take on these Nigerian stories in the global space…The time is [right] now where something from Africa does hit that note with international audiences.”
Overseas audiences, however, can be “a little picky,” says Abudu, and break-out shows generally possess high production values mixed with “the right kind of sensibilities.” Even elements like audio, locations and costuming require a different level of attention, says the executive.
Language, too, is a consideration: “Blood Sisters” is predominantly in English — which is Nigeria’s official language — with some lines of Igbo and Pidgin English strewn throughout.
But ultimately, director Kenneth Gyang, who helmed episodes three and four of the series, says it’s the relatability of the class tensions and domestic issues that will draw audiences in.
“The biggest thing is the class system,” says Gyang. “This young girl’s parents want to make sure that their economic welfare is being taken care of just by marrying their daughter into this family. The economic dynamics between the rich and the poor are very relatable internationally; it was the same thing in ‘Squid Game.’”
Gyang was also conscious of presenting a multi-dimensional portrayal of Nigerian culture and its different socioeconomic groups, particularly in the latter two episodes.
“How do you present your community culturally? Do you make it just one-dimensional, like how Hollywood used to portray the upper class?” says Gyang. “Or do you make it relatable and show the different facets of life? That’s what people want to see. When people watch your project, it’s almost like a journey into understanding your culture and how your country works.”
For Nigerian actor Deyemi Okanlawon, who plays the abusive and highly unlikable Kola (a challenging role that forced him to seek therapy during production), the global platform provided by Netflix has already drawn interest from producers around the world.
“I think Nigeria has some of the most talented creatives, and specifically actors, in the world,” says Okanlawon. “I’ve seen how, in other climes, they’ve tried to represent Nigeria and they haven’t particularly done it well. You’re casting for a Nigerian but you have someone from another country — maybe an African country — who doesn’t sound authentically Nigerian. It’s worrisome. It would be great to represent my country on a global scale and, as an actor, play other nationalities.”
But at this point, Gyang quickly points out that an actor like Okanlawon no longer needs to move away to find global stardom.
“People always move to Hollywood because the big studios are there,” says the director, “but now the big studios are everywhere, and actually they’re operating in Nigeria. For me, it’s the same process, it’s the same platform, so you don’t need to move, physically, in order to get any form of validation.”
Underlines Abudu: “We want our stories to be as authentic and local as possible to appeal to a local audience, but also to appeal to a global audience. The stories are going to be great stories, it’s just that they’re not told from London, although that’s not to say we aren’t going to tell stories from London, because we are global citizens — we travel. There are Nigerians all over the world; there are Africans everywhere.”