By Prof. Bukola Oyeniyi
On Monday October 3, 2022, I wrote a small piece on my Facebook page, reviewing Mr. Kunle Afolayan’s movie, Anikulapo, which I watched the previous evening. As I noted in the piece, I watched the movie and was not impressed by what it portrayed; I also did not understand the accolades it has so far received.
In my disappointment with the movie, I likened it to a cockerel with no head. Given that the head, even in Yoruba cosmology, is the location of the thinking part of the human body, the very part that makes the human person a thinking being.
Since its publication on my Facebook page, the review has received hundreds of comments, shares, and reposting. No sooner had I posted the review than it surfaced on one of Nollywood’s major WhatsApp groups where many queried my views, while others approved of them.
Reviewing Anikulapo or other movies, for that matter, that bother on people’s history and culture is important to me because I use them in the classroom–to teach African history.
Early this year, I engaged with Professor Toyin Falola who also teaches African history using movies. He had a number of times invited the likes of Tunde Kelani to his classroom, and I interrogated him on what other movies, songs, and photos he could vouch for and recommend in teaching African history.
He recommended not just Tunde Kelani’s works, but also Kunle Afolayan’s. Now, for those of us who use movies, songs, and photos to teach African history and culture, historical accuracy and adherence to background details are some of the key elements to look for.
We respect authors rights to infuse their opinions, especially in the interpretations. Where, however, it is difficult to locate and ascertain the presence of historical accuracy and adherence to background details in a material, such materials have no practical use in an educational and academic setting, so we jettison them.
It is with the above in mind that I wrote the critique. It is the leitmotif of the piece, and contrary to widespread view, I was not out to dampen the morale of Mr. Kunle Afolayan or any producer/director, for that matter.
As I noted in my review, a view I still hold, the movie is a masterpiece only to Kunle and his ardent fans, not to me. Besides growing up in Oyo town and working at different times in the Old Oyo axis, I am a Yoruba man and, as such, any movie, poem, books, etc. on Yorubaland and Yoruba people is of a great interest to me.
In addition to this, as a professor of history with specialization in researching on and teaching Yoruba and African history in the 19th and 20th Centuries, a movie like that of Mr. Afolayan’s, which purportedly tells the story of Oyo-Ile and Yoruba religious belief is and should be of interest to me.
Art, in whatever form, mirrors life and artists, in general, reserve the right to either exaggerate reality or underplay it for effect and for other purposes.
Notwithstanding this, artists also have a duty to the truth. As it is often said: opinions are free, but facts are sacred. So, Mr. Afolayan reserves the right to take any story in whatever direction that suits his fancy and media creativity, however, he has a duty to both the truth and historical facts.
To certain extent, he did pay due diligence to the truth, especially by informing the audience from the start that the movie was based on a story purportedly taken from the Ifa Corpus as told to him by Pa. Yemi Elebuibon. He was however not faithful in some other important areas, a few of which I wrote about and would expand on in this essay.
The storyline is simple and straight forward. Saro, a young man from Gbongan, left home and wandered into Oyo Ile, where fortune smiled on him. And, owing to an amorous relationship with a wealthy woman, one of the chiefs, he was elevated to the status of the clothier of the royal household. On his first visit to the palace, he encountered the king’s newest and youngest wife, who was captivated by Saro’s good looks and who ended up raping Saro at a nearby bush–having sneaked out of the palace at night.
One of the princesses was equally captivated by Saro’s good looks and repeatedly fantasized about him. When she realized that the youngest queen had beaten her to the prize, she gave them up and Saro and the queen were banished.
Did I just say ‘banished’? No! We were not told what the punishment was. The next scene showed guards beating up Saro while the queen was shown hiding and watching the unfolding drama from behind a tree.
Saro was left for dead, however, his spirit was revived by the mythical Akala bird and with the power of the bird, Saro made it in another town. His newfound wealth and fame turned him into an ungrateful man who finally met his albatross in the arms of many other women. Buoyed by pride, he eventually priced himself out of favor.
The lessons in the movie are many and clear, although no attempt was made to spotlight any of the lessons and one can interpret it as a validation of rape, wife-snatching, etc. While the lessons are clear, the same cannot be said of the plot.
The Use of Ifa Corpus in Historical Reconstruction
As historians have noted, no source of history is infallible. Mr. Afolayan’s source is a rather curious one. In my research on dress, I came across many sources on dress-use in Yorubaland that were tied to Ifa corpus. In one of the stories, Esu was said to have given a cloth to one of the spirits, a female spirit, to cover her breasts when they were coming from the infernal regions to the earth. In turn, he got pap. In other Ifa stories, we were told stories of Sango, Ogun, Osun, Oya, and many other personages.
As a historian, I found all these confusing. For instance, Sango was the Second king of Oyo. He was never a spirit but a mortal human. If the Ifa corpus can write about Sango, then there was nothing ancient about Ifa and the stories can be said to be carefully curated by some people at some point and because it was told from generation to generation without scrutiny, it assumed a mythical nature that Ifa priests bandy around today.
Contrary to popular belief, Yoruba and Oyo origins are not as old as to be impossible to date. For instance, the first empire of note in West Africa was the Soninke empire. Following its fall, Mali rose and later Songhai. Yoruba and Oyo-Ile came into being after the collapse of Songhai empire. All these events have been dated. So, what the heck is the significance of the Ifa origin of the story of Anikulapo that cannot be subjected to a closer scrutiny?
Professor Wande Abimbola, one of the best authorities on Ifa, wrote in Saburi Biobaku’s Sources of Yoruba History that not all Ifa corpuses can be used in historical construction and in a 2020 Zoom lecture organized by the Oyo Global Forum, he made clear that there were two types of Ifa corpuses – one aged (Ifa-Akoda) and the other recent (Ifa-Aseda).
Any story credited to Ifa therefore needs insights from other sources before it can qualify as a credible source for historical reconstruction. In other words, one can argue that the fact that a story was credited to Ifa does not confer authenticity on it. In the Saro or Anikulapo story, it matters little what the content of the story might be, the historiality of the story is another factor.
The Alaafin of Oyo in Afolayan’s Imagination
For my doctorate degree, I researched Yoruba dress and have since published on Yoruba sartorial tradition that I am qualified to be called an expert on the subject. So, the first thing that jumped to me in the movie was the dress of the Alaafin, the Royal family, and the chiefs. In traditional Yorubaland, dress was important and dressing well was considered a mark of good bearing/upbringing.
The Alaafin in Mr. Afolayan’s imagination was a poor king that was limited in his sartorial choices. Unknown to Mr. Afolayan, at this time in Yoruba history, velvet was the king of clothes and, in different parts of Africa, including Oyo-Ile, it was exclusively reserved for the king. Sadly, the Alaafin of Mr. Afolayan’s imagination was not in any way different in his sartorial choice from his chiefs. In reality, the dress of the king, especially the Alaafin, was so great and so voluminous that a colonial officer noted: “If the chiefs are dressed like this, how would the king look”?
I wonder if Mr. Afolayan has come across this statement: “Aran, Aso Oba ti ntannan yaran yaran” – Velvet, the simmering King’s Dress. If he has, certainly, his understanding of it is devoid of any marked historical knowledge or appreciation.
One would expect the Alaafin to be well dressed and his presence attended with the dundun drums, sekere, and agogo. Sadly, not once did the traditional dundun- the exclusive drum of the Alaafin, feature anywhere in the movie. The grandeur of Oyo – from its prosperity that became a lore during the time of Alaafin Abiodun to the extent of its powers that cowered the Dahomeyans, etc. – was also absent.
The Aafin, in Afolayan’s imagination, must be in the bush and bereft of any security that a wayward queen can slip away unnoticed and to be laid on in a nearby bush by a commoner that she met in less than 5 minutes.
It is only in Mr. Afolayan’s imaginations that one strange person can saunter into Oyo-Ile, the capital of an empire that was ringed about by soldiers and make away with the king’s wife. It is only in Mr. Afolayan’s imaginations that a craftsman from another town with no pedigree can, simply because of his sexual exploits with an old woman, become the palace dressmaker in a town reputable for its Ofi making.
Cladding the Oyo royal family members in Tie and Dye is as wrong as celebrating Easter in December. Cloth making, as at the beginning of the 19th up to the middle of the 20th centuries, was a major and professional occupation that had guilds in the 4 major centers of Yoruba textile production: Abeokuta, Osogbo, Iseyin and Oyo. Ilorin did not emerge as a major center of textile production until the dispersal from Oyo Ile. While Abeokuta and Osogbo were renowned for Tie and Dye, Oyo and Iseyin were renowned for Ofi production.
Granted that Saro noted that he trained in Iseyin, Oyo was the home of Ofi and while dexterity is not a product of geography, it is repeat performance that builds dexterity. So, an Ofi-maker’s apprentice cannot surface in Oyo to ply his trade and suddenly get recommended to the royal family. Even if Saro’s only passport to success was his sexual liaisons, when viewed from the perspective of Oyo Ile being a home of Ofi-making, his emergence as a royal clothier at Oyo-Ile turns logic on its head.
Gbongan, where Saro emanated from, was not a major town. It was a market town and could not possibly be a home to any master Ofi-maker. The unprofessional nature of Anikulapo’s making in terms of historicity can best be summed up with Saro’s attempt at handling the loom. Not only was this ‘master Ofi maker’ so poor in his handling of ‘motor’ (oko), but also handling the ‘aja’ on wrong a hand.
Just as the king was poorly represented in the movie, so also was the great Oyo Ile itself.
Oyo-Ile, just to educate Mr. Afolayan, was ringed about by fortified security structures along its main borders at Ekun Otun, Ekun Osi, Ibolo and Eepo. In all these, there were soldiers mounting guards, gate keepers collecting tools, and there were relays of drummers, spies (ears of the king), among others, stationed along the roads whose jobs included informing the capital of any foreigners, invaders, or visitors. So, Oyo Ile was not a mere town that one wayfarer can just saunter into and be brought to the attention of the chiefs let alone the king himself in the manner presented in the movie.
The 19th Century Yoruba Wars
There is no way to tell the story of Oyo and Yorubaland in the 19th Century without a mention of the Yoruba wars.
The wealth of Oyo Ile, which was not in any way captured in the movie, and the competition over it by the various chiefs played a great role in the collapse of the Oyo Empire. It was during this time that the 19th Century Yoruba wars, fueling the slave trade, occurred. Mr. Afolayan, without any reference to the war, mentioned the slave trade and, curiously, presented us with a merchant paying with cowrie shells. This is minute but it is a clear pointer to how bereft of historical context the movie is.
Barter trade gave way to trade in cowries and from cowries to brass ingots. What was the medium of exchange during the Atlantic Slave Trade? There were two economies at this period, one local and the other international. With what were these two trading systems conducted?
In the movie, we saw a horse, a donkey, and camel, among many other props with which Afolayan brought the story to light. Given how engrossed with warfare Oyo was, I wonder if it did not occur to Mr. Afolayan that rather than for one individual to move about on horseback, the horse would have been deployed in the war effort? This is important as horses were so few and difficult to find for the war effort. It is historically accurate that horses were brought into Oyo-Ile via Ilorin, but donkeys and camels never made it in Yorubaland. Tsetse flies were their bane.
Even if we decided to pass Mr. Afolayan with the presentation of horses, donkeys and camels, the context of Oyo’s involvement in the slave trade vis-a-vis other things in the movie reveal how ahistorical the movie is.
Why was Saro not kidnapped before sauntering into Oyo but was afraid for his life after his resurrection from the dead?
The movie, in addition to the above, showed the dearth of actors in Yorubaland today. It is strange that despite recruiting veterans of the industry for the movie, Mr. Afolayan elected to superimpose a computer-generated voice on them rather than allowing these characters to use their voice. This is very sad. It robs the movie of what would have made it into a good movie.
These flaws made Anikulapo similar to The Woman King where Oyo people were costumed in Hausa turbans. Like the Alaafin of Mr. Kunle Afolayan’s imagination, the king in The Woman King was also not attended with the pomp and ceremony associated with him. Unlike The Woman King that was staged in KwaZulu Natal, in arid South Africa and not in Dahomey, a delta area; Mr. Afolayan staged his Anikulapo in an area that is similar to Oyo-Ile. Also, unlike The Woman King whose characters were mainly South Africans – a fact that reflected on their pronunciations and dialects, Mr. Afolayan used mainly Yoruba actors and actresses but never allowed them to bless his movie with the glory of their voices. To worsen it all, the Alaafin was presented like a common beggar and his palace not different from a commoner’s homestead.
This problem of paying no attention to historical details and accuracies is not limited to Anikulapo and The Woman King, it can also be seen in Tunde Kelani’s Ayinla. The Omowura in Tunde Kelani’s imagination did not smoke a cigarette let alone Indian Hemp to which the real Ayinla Omowura was an addict.
A number of things contributes to what makes a movie good, great, or masterpiece. So far, I have focused on the knowledge/historical content of Mr. Afolayan’s Anikulapo. I am not a professional movie critic, and I did not study Dramatic Arts, my views are mainly that of a professor of African history who uses movies, songs, and photos that bother on people’s history and culture in the classroom on African history.
As I noted at the beginning, other professors are doing the same thing and of crucial importance to us are issues like historical accuracy and adherence to background details. Neither Afolayan nor Kelani owns African history and culture; hence, whatever they presented as African history and culture in movies, songs, and photos should not be seen solely as their own views to the truth about African history and culture.
While they are entitled to their opinions, historical truths and facts are sacred. And since historical accuracy and adherence to background details are important materials in determining a masterpiece, I would conclude that Kunle Afolayan’s Anikulapo lacked both.
Bukola Oyeniyi is Associate Professor of History at the Missouri State University. His research expertise is on the social and cultural history of Africa, specifically internal migration and human development, social conflicts in composite societies, terrorism, and dress and identity in Yorubaland. He is the author of “The History of Libya” (2019), “Dress in the Making of African Identity: A Social and Cultural History of the Yoruba People” (2015), “African in Focus: Nigeria” (co-authored with Toyin Falola, 2015), “Culture and Customs of Libya” (2012), etc.