Tunde Kelani’s Thunderbolt
African Video for African Audiences
While many African films, such as Emitai (Sembene, 1971), Tilai (Ouedraogo, 1990), and Tsotsi (Hood, 2005), gain international recognition for their universal stories, the Nigerian video industry (often known as “Nollywood”) produces stories intended almost entirely for the African market. As Nollywood is supported by the African market instead of foreign investment, its videos have become a platform for the discussion of the issues considered most important by local populations. Tunde Kelani’s Thunderbolt (2000) is a prime example, as it explores the disunity among African peoples, the role of supernatural beliefs and folklore, sexual politics in Nigerian society, and the conflict between modernity and African traditions. While Thunderbolt provides a distinctly African discourse, like most Nollywood video-films it does not resemble the “African art-film” aesthetic so much as Western melodrama, particularly the soap-opera
Thunderbolt depicts the experiences of an Ibo (now more commonly known as Igbo) woman named Ngozi who has married a Yoruba man named Yinka despite the conflict between their two tribes. In the wake of colonialism many African peoples have been placed in situations of conflict, and while the conflict between the Ibo and Yuroba is of particular significance in Nigeria, it could easily be seen to be representative of similar clashes in other African countries to which the video was distributed. Indeed, the film suggests the universality of its message in one of Ngozi’s final statements. In light of Ngozi having found out that Yinka was responsible for placing the MAGUN curse upon her, Dimeji (a Yoruba doctor who nearly dies after helping Ngozi rid herself of the MAGUN) says “You might think that all Yoruba men are wicked.” Ngozi replies “There are only good and bad people. Those are the two tribes.” Ngozi’s earlier attempts to save her marriage to her brutish husband are made partly out of love, but also out of her hope that an Ibo and a Yoruba could live in harmony. After one of Ngozi’s flashbacks, in which she remembers being warned that a marriage to a Yoruba would never work, she cries “Oh God, it must work, please make it work.” She seems worried that the failure of her marriage could mean that she was wrong to trust a Yoruba. Having left her old life and family, almost all of the people around her are Yoruba, so more than her marriage could be at stake. After Yinka betrays her, this fear is allayed with Veepee’s statement that “An evil man gives a bad name to his race, even when that race contains a host of angels, but a race is a race; a man –a man.”
Thunderbolt also addresses traditional supernatural beliefs and folklore; these are common subjects in Nollywood stories due to their prominence among the lower classes. Ngozi is first warned of the MAGUN when she is pulled aside by an old man in a market. His words seem to bear the weight of prophecy: “Your innocence is your only saving grace. Take heed of your health, or else you will die a shameful death soon. Heed my words or else death will hit you like a Thunderbolt.” He disappears mysteriously when Ngozi turns aside for a moment, suggesting some sort of magical influence. She later recalls to her landlady that the man spoke Ibo and that his voice reminded her of her dead grandmother’s cane. This is suggestive of the common African belief that ancestral spirits can intercede in the lives of the living. The description of the MAGUN even suggests that the spirit world is more powerful than the living world: “MAGUN is not a disease. MAGUN is death, put on you so that anybody who commits adultery with you will die. […] MAGUN is African AIDS, worse than the one they tell you on your radio or television.” By comparing MAGUN negatively to AIDS, one of the most devastating and fear-inspiring diseases to ever hit Africa, it is insinuated that the supernatural world has more to dish out than anything the physical one has to offer.
When Yinka inflicts Ngozi with the MAGUN he knows that she may be innocent, in which case he is sacrificing her to gain control of her inheritance. This relates Thunderbolt to a supernatural African belief that has inspired other Nollywood video-films: that a man can sacrifice his wife through some mystical means and gain wealth in return. Brian Larkin refers to two examples of this storyline in his article “Video Awudjo!” In Living in Bondage (Christian Onu, 1992) a man is told by a cult of successful businessmen that he must ritually sacrifice his wife in order to gain wealth. In Time (Ifeanyi Oyeabor, 2000) a man makes a deal with a witch that makes his wife get sicker and sicker, but makes him wealthier and wealthier. After she dies he keeps the corpse, as money continues to come out of her mouth. Larkin asserts that these stories relate to the uniquely skewed distribution of wealth in Africa:
In contemporary postcolonial West Africa, where the everyday suffering of the vast majority stands in stark contrast to the fantastic accumulation of the small elite, the tropes of sorcery, witchcraft and supernatural evil have provided a powerful way to express the inequalities of wealth. Representations of magic and the supernatural are not escapist fantasies but are believed by audiences to be part of the everyday world in which they live and rumors are rampant that behind material wealth lies magical production.
While the story of Thunderbolt diverges slightly from these other examples (Yinka only plans to kill Ngozi to gain control of the wealth, not to magically generate it), the key elements of supernatural forces, murder, corruption, and greed among the rich are all evident. Josef Gugler points out that, “In their distorted fashion these stories reflect a reality. Much wealth is ill-gotten by means that bring death” (178).
Of course, these stories also relate to the sexual politics of some African societies. In Thunderbolt’s opening scene Veepee tells the schoolchildren that a well-behaved child is the child of the father, and a wicked child is the child of the mother, yet it is Yinka who ends up acting wickedly while Ngozi remains faithful and loving. Ngozi does attempt to commit adultery with her landlady’s nephew, but only due to the circumstances Yinka forced upon her, and because she wishes to protect him from the MAGUN. Though adultery is still taken very seriously in most African societies, especially a woman’s adultery (it still carries a sentence of death by stoning in many countries, particularly those which have adopted Islamic law), Ngozi is excused from judgment. This is not to say that Thunderbolt promotes sexual equality. Ngozi’s attitude towards Yinka is servile, and when Veepee comments that Yinka is lucky to have a disciplined and obedient wife, Ngozi seems to take it as a compliment. Still, in a culture that often condemns women for expressing any sort of sexuality outside of marriage, Thunderbolt is decidedly progressive. At the very least, Yinka is censured for treating Ngozi as a possession to be disposed with as he pleases, and the audience’s identification with Ngozi as a (relatively) strong female main character somewhat subverts societal norms of male dominance.
This examination of sexual politics is suitable to the video-film’s overarching discourse of modern (or Western) beliefs versus African tradition. While it is somewhat Western in its treatment of sexual politics, however, it sides overtly with traditional beliefs in many other ways. Ngozi is portrayed as a modern African woman (she is educated and well-to-do, and she works instead of staying home to take care of her baby), and her modern beliefs nearly cause her downfall, as she scoffs at the idea that she has been placed under some sort of curse. It takes the entreaties of her father, her landlady (a surrogate mother), and Veepee to finally convince her to accept the herbalist’s services. All of these characters are elder authority figures and bastions of African beliefs, and the fact that they are eventually proven correct upholds their traditions.
The most obvious example of these traditions displayed in the film is that of African medicine, which is explicitly compared to Western medicine during a conference attended by Doctor Dimeji. He agrees to have sex with Ngozi on the condition that he can use the experience to publish a paper debunking African medicine. Throughout most of the film it remains uncertain whether the MAGUN really exists (though most African viewers would at least recognize the Nollywood conventions and assume that it does, at least within the confines of the film), and Dimeji’s collapse after intercourse with Ngozi is a validation both of supernatural forces and of traditional African medicine. Dimeji’s medical colleagues stand helpless as the herbalists jump into action, and they later remark “You should thank those herbalists, they saved your life” and “I saw it with my own eyes. You are lucky, man. You are so lucky.”
The discussion of Thunderbolt on California Newsreel’s (the American distributor of the video) website questions the wisdom of this depiction, stating that “one can’t help wondering what the public health impact of validating traditional over Western medicine might be in a continent fighting the AIDS epidemic” (Thunderbolt). While this is a relevant concern, the film does not actually invalidate Western medicine, it only criticizes it for ignoring the possible applications of African medicine. The repeated references to AIDS (including the fact that the subtitles capitalize MAGUN just like AIDS) may cause many Western viewers to believe that the film is allegorically referring to AIDS. On the contrary, the fact that the film explicitly refers to AIDS in describing MAGUN actually differentiates them, drawing the viewer to note that, despite their similarities, they are two different diseases. MAGUN is the supernatural equivalent of AIDS, and therefore requires herbalists, the supernatural equivalent of doctors, to heal it. While it is impossible to know what inferences African viewers would make from this depiction, the film does not so much debunk Western medicine as suggest that both Western and African traditions have their places.
Considering the African focus of these discourses, Western viewers are likely to be surprised that Thunderbolt’s aesthetics and narrative forms are not in keeping with common conceptions of African film. Like most Nollywood productions, it is faster-paced, more focused on character psychology, and far more melodramatic than canonical films like Emitai or Tilai. It is important to realize that the African films which receive Western distribution tend to do so through film festivals and educational institutions. Sembene, Mambety, and Kabore are Africa’s art-house directors, analogous to the Godards and Fellinis of the Western canon. Just by watching the previews included on the videotape of Thunderbolt, it is immediately apparent that Nollywood video-films are pop-cultural texts, as most of them attract audiences with cheap sensationalism and guilty pleasures. One of the previews features a video of fist-fights and brawls, which appears to be akin to those released by The Jerry Springer Show. Another advertises a video which is supposed to depict the life of a prostitute in great detail, providing the same scandals and titillation as American trash-culture. Thunderbolt obviously has greater depth than most of these other productions, but it suffers from the same budget restraints and need for mass-market approval. As Josef Gugler notes, “The content of the video films produced in Nigeria and Ghana is market-driven. Most exhibit the trappings of affluent settings –like so many Hollywood films” (178). This pattern is evident in Thunderbolt, as Ngozi and Yinka are fairly wealthy to begin with; owning their own house and employing a house-worker (either a nanny or a maid), yet still having enough money for Ngozi to rent another apartment nearer her work. Ngozi’s inheritance makes them even richer (it is of interest to note that the two-hundred-fifty-thousand naira that she inherits was only worth approximately twenty-five-hundred U.S. dollars in the year 2000, but still represented a huge sum by Nigerian standards). As such, Thunderbolt does provide the soap-opera’s guilty pleasure of basking in the material wealth of the upper classes, but it “rises above [most Nigerian video-films] by attempting to treat a political theme –national unity– important unfinished business for Nigeria in the aftermath of the brutal Civil War of the 1960s” (Thunderbolt).
The scandalous intrigues of murder and adultery may be needed to fill seats and sell videos but, in the case of Thunderbolt at least, they are part of a narrative that addresses genuine issues in African society. Criticisms that Nollywood video-films “have neither the political nor the aesthetic ambition of the senior generation of African films” (Larkin) ignore the fact that canonical African films are generally given greater distribution outside of Africa than within. Like any commercial entertainment industry, Nollywood will be forced to mold itself to the desires of its consumers. As the industry matures, its consumers’ tastes will likely mature as well, demanding greater quality and depth from their video-films. While Nollywood may still be a rudimentary industry, it has developed quickly and has the potential to start spreading, defining, and uniting African cultures. This potential must not be ignored.
Gugler, Josef. “Between the African Mass Market & International Recognition.” African Film: Re-Imagining a Continent. Oxford: James Currey Ltd., 2003: 177-191.
Thunderbolt. California Newsreels. 14 Apr. 2007.
Larkin, Brian. “Video Awudjo!” New York African Film Festival Archives. (2001) 14 April 2007.