A Year of Watching Women: My 10 Favorite Films & Series of 2016
I spent a great deal of my spare time in 2015 reading books written by women, and compiled a list of my favorites here. In 2016, screens were a much sweeter escape for me than books were, and I spent quite some down time watching women. From Bollywood to Nollywood, Netflix Originals to YouTube series: I was drawn to films and series that were created by women, featured women or about women (if you are subscribed to my blog, you might have read about some of these films and series in my newsletters). By the end of 2016, I had learned so much about gender and women’s history through television and film that I joked with a friend I was prepared to teach a women’s studies course through the lens of popular culture, ha! In the meantime, I thought to share some of my favorites with you. Most of the films and series on this list were released or continued in 2016, but not all were—I simply watched them in 2016. I present without further ado and in no particular order (well, I did save the best for last), my favorite films and series of 2016:
1. Jenifa's Diary
A spinoff from a hit Nollywood movie, Jenifa’s Diary is a comedy series that follows Jenifa (Funke Akindele)—a “village girl” who is determined to become a successful city girl or “bigks gals” as she calls it. Jenifa’s appalling grammar supplies a lot of the show’s comedy (gbagauns as we call it in Nigeria), but moral themes such as advocacy against domestic violence and the dangers of drug use undergird every episode.
I am impressed not just by the success of Jenifa’s Diary, but also by the woman behind it. Funke Akindele made her Nollywood debut as a teenage character, Bisi, in the popular United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) sponsored sitcom, I Need To Know. The show ran from 1998 to 2002 and highlighted adolescent health issues like safe sex and teenage pregnancy. Akindele got her big break though when she starred in the Jenifa film in 2008. She reportedly used the money she got from one of her subsequent endorsement deals to start Jenifa’s Diary. Now, the show is currently on its sixth season. It is without a doubt the most popular series on iROKO TV (Nigeria’s Netflix) and broadcasts on major African TV networks. Rock on Funke Akindele—You gats to be bigks!
2. Second Mother
Number two on this list is the Second Mother (see what I did there?). The Second Mother is a 2015 Brazilian drama film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It stars Regina Casé as Val—a woman who moves to São Paulo to provide a better life for her daughter, Jéssica, who she leaves behind in Pernambuco. In São Paulo, Val works as the housemaid of a wealthy family, and takes care of the family’s only child Fabinho. The film focuses on the tensions that arise after Jéssica calls her mother some years later and asks to come stay with her while she studies for an admission exam at the University of São Paulo.
Unlike Val, Jéssica blatantly disregards the status quo when she arrives São Paulo. She requests to stay in the guest room (versus in the servant’s quarters with her mother), eats Fabinho’s favorite ice cream without his permission and swims in the family pool—all to her mother’s horror. Consequently, Jéssica’s presence in the home highlights the ways Val is marginalized, and exposes the class divides that exist between Val and her supposedly progressive employers.
This is a film with all the right ingredients: culturally specific yet universally relatable, socially conscious yet humorous, layered but not heavy. It’ll have you thinking about what motherhood means, and the sacrifices it requires; as well as the ways gender and class intersect. Second Mother is definitely a must watch! It is available on Amazon Video.
American TV was having a 90s moment last year. For example, The People v. O.J. Simpson, introduced millennials (myself included) to the drama in and out of court surrounding O.J. Simpson’s mid-90s trial for the murder of his wife. There was also Confirmation, a docufilm that reenacts the scorching 1991 confirmation hearings of then Supreme Court Justice nominee, Clarence Thomas.
Confirmation focuses on the spectacle that unfolded when Anita Hill (Kerry Washington) accused Thomas of sexually harassing her when they worked together. Similar to The People v. OJ Simpson, this film explores the intersections of race and gender: Thomas defended himself by declaring that he was being subjected to a “high-tech lynching.”
Good art of any kind will make you feel something. Confirmation made me feel angry. Without giving too much away, I finally understood what Nora Ephron meant when she stated in her commencement address to Wellesley’s (all-female) Class of 1996: “The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you…The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you…” Confirmation is available via HBO.
4. Everything Is Copy
Speaking of Nora Ephron, if you’ve read my blog post ‘5 Books by Female Author’s That Changed My Life,’ you’ll know just how much I adore her. For the uninitiated, Nora Ephron was a screenwriter (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Julie and Julia), novelist (Heartburn), essayist (I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being A Woman) and blogger—amongst other things. Of course, when I heard Ephron’s son was creating a documentary about her titled Everything Is Copy, I was ecstatic.
In journalism, the word ‘copy’ refers to suitable material for an article or story. “Everything is copy” is something Ephron’s mother always told her. It’s the idea that everything that happens to you is something to write about, and a motto Nora Ephron famously lived her life by. “Everything is copy” gave Ephron license to write openly about everything from her divorces to her contemporaries. It also inspired her to turn the tragedies in her life to comedy. Yet, as this documentary explores, when it came to the illness that took her life, Ephron was radio silent. In this documentary, one truth stands out: women contain multitudes. Everything is Copy is also available on HBO.
5. Before 30
I caught a few episodes of the series Before 30 (aka ‘B4 30’) on TV while I was in Nigeria in 2015, so I was pretty excited when it became available online last year. The series has a Sex and the City (SATC) setup: four female friends in a big city (Lagos), seeking to balance careers and love. Temilola Coker (Damilola Adegbite), the shows main character, is a successful 27-year old lawyer who is eager to find true love but is also facing pressure from her family to get married before she turns thirty. Her friend Nkem is beautiful, outgoing and less concerned about romantic entanglements—the Samantha of the group if you’re a SATC fan. Aisha, a northern Muslim housewife who is married to a billionaire, faces conflicts between religious and cultural expectations, and her desire for more from marriage and life. Ama is sweet, sometimes naïve and a devout Pentecostal Christian.
Like SATC, B430 reflects common aspects of the female experience like the dynamics of female friendship—but it uniquely brings to fore social, economic, cultural and religious aspects of the Nigerian female experience (or the upper middleclass urban Nigerian experience I should say). Overall, the show’s quality is top-notch and the plot is very interesting. I binge watched the entire first season within a few hours on a Saturday morning—you can do the same here.
6. Ladies Room
The Indian YouTube series Ladies Room begins in an unusual location: a dirty women’s toilet in a Mumbai train. In fact, all the episodes of this series revolve around toilets, where two young women chitchat about everything from work drama to unexpected pregnancies. While the show’s language and humor are sometimes not for the faint of heart, its formula has proven to be a winning one: the first episode drew 1.5 million views when it premiered on YouTube. It has consistently drawn high views since then.
As a woman who has lived in Nigeria for a good part of my life, and who has often gone against the grain—I could relate to these young women’s quest to unapologetically be themselves. The writers of the show, Neha Kaul Mehra and Ratnabali Bhattacharjee, said they came up with the script ideas based on their own lives, which they didn’t see being portrayed by Bollywood. “It’s always bothered me that Indian cinema, and more recently TV, never took women seriously. We’ve been offered sorry pastiches of what women ought to be, but seldom who they are in the real world,” Mehra says. Thanks to Youtube, young female writers can now bypass traditional media companies, and tell their stories with refreshing humor and honesty. For a good laugh, check out Ladies Room here.
7. Skinny Girl In Transit
While we are on the topic of young female writers using YouTube to tell their stories with humor and honesty, I am obsessed with Skinny Girl In Transit (SGIT). Currently on its third season, the Nigerian series follows the life of plus-size radio personality Tiwa (Abimbola Craig) on her journey through weight loss, relationships, career progression and self-awareness. A lot of the show’s comedy comes from Tiwa’s hilarious mother (Mama Tiwa for President!) who constantly troubles Tiwa about her single status, and Tiwa’s younger sister who constantly reminds of her size.
The show’s creator, Damilola Elebe, is also a plus-size radio personality, so it’s not too hard to figure out where the inspiration for the show was derived. Elebe created Ndani TV’s new-ish hit series Rumour Has It as well, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next! In the meantime, you can catch up on SGIT here.
8. Good Girls Revolt
Inspired by real life events at Newsweek magazine, Good Girls Revolt is set in late 1960s New York City: the era of the second wave of feminism. It follows a group of young female journalists at “News of the Week” magazine who are relegated to low-level positions (researchers), whereas their male counterparts with similar qualifications get to be reporters. At News of the Week, female researchers’ work gets incorporated in their male reporters articles, but their names don’t get included in bylines. They get paid a fraction of what their male counterparts do, and are asked to fetch coffee and run errands. These “good girls” scarcely complain about any of News of the Weeks unfair treatment—that is, until they get fed up and decide to revolt by suing their employer.
The first season of this Amazon original ends with a cliffhanger: the women are announcing their lawsuit in a press conference. So: imagine my fury when I learned in December that Amazon has decided to cancel the show? This cancellation, despite the facts that the show received a 4.5 star rating from over 18,000 viewers and was selected by Newsweek magazine as one of the best TV shows of 2016. According to reports, Roy Price, the head of Amazon Video, cancelled the show because he did not like or watch it. Ironically, no women were present when the cancellation decision was made, according to Dana Calvo, the show’s creator. Is anyone up for an online petition against Amazon? #BringBackGoodGirlsRevolt
9. Upstairs, Downstairs
One thing Amazon Video did right in my books last year: uploading the revival of the British classic, Upstairs, Downstairs. There was a big void in my life after Downton Abbey (DA) concluded (the only reason DA is not on this list is because I already wrote extensively about it here), so I couldn’t have caught wind of this show at a better time. Coincidentally, The Upstairs, Downstairs revival also picked up right where DA left off: while DA was set between 1912-1925 (i.e. the post-Edwardian era), this series starts in 1930s England, right when King Edward VIII is causing pandemonium by abdicating the throne and WWII is on the precipice. Similar to DA, Upstairs, Downstairs explores the dynamics of aristocrats (the upper-crust Bellamy family in this case) and their retinue of servants.
While I very much enjoyed Upstairs, Downstairs’ nuanced depictions of important historical events (e.g. initial interest in British fascism and aristocratic flirtations with Nazis), I was most drawn to the more mundane and intricate details of the lives of women in the show—both upstairs and downstairs. For example, I was horrified to see a pregnant woman smoking (cigarettes where a fixture in the culture of western elite women at the time), and amused when a maid is chastised for wearing nail polish (while nail polish dates back to 3,000 B.C., it became truly popular in the 1920s and 30s). For British period series believers, Upstairs, Downstairs is a series for you.
10. The Crown
Last but most definitely NOT least: The Crown. In fact, this is the most expensive series on this list: The Crown reportedly cost Netflix a record $130 million, making it the most expensive television production ever. As you may know, I am a British period series enthusiast—so you should know I waited for this series with a baited breath. Let me tell you: I was not disappointed. I loved it so much I cajoled and blackmailed my husband into watching it and even got my mother to do the same (a big feat if you know her or know about Nigerian internet). They weren’t disappointed either.
The Crown chronicles the life of Queen Elizabeth II from the 1940s to modern times. The first season focuses on her wedding, the death of her father King George VI, her ascension to the throne and coronation. The series highlights family drama and scandals, political rivalries, and of course—gender. I was particularly interested in the scenes that showed the effect Queen Elizabeth’s position had on her marriage during the early days (bearing in mind the show’s creators took artistic license with the script).
Everything about this series is rich—the acting, the cinematography, the plots, the extras, the costumes, the locations...everything. Thanks to The Crown, I plan to spend a good deal of 2017 drinking tea in dresses and pearls, because: #Queening.