I Think King of Boys Is Overrated: Here's Why.
I went to see King of Boys last weekend (Yes, I go to the cinema to watch Nigerian movies). I had no idea what the film was about before seeing it, but: 1) My friend had informed me in non-negotiable terms we would be seeing it, and 2) I knew it was a Kemi Adetiba film. Kemi Adetiba is an award-winning filmmaker and director whose receipts include The Wedding Party (up until its sequel, the highest grossing Nollywood film) and the YouTube series King Women. Also, if you’ve ever watched a Nigerian music video and really liked it— chances are Kemi Adetiba had something to do with it.
Back to last weekend: I got to the movie theater circa 8:00pm because the theater’s website said the film started at 8.30pm, but it apparently wasn’t scheduled to start until 8:55pm. I was exhausted, but decided to stay because my friend had gotten a babysitter, and because: Kemi Adetiba. As we were walking into the theater I heard someone say the movie was about three hours long. Now, if you know anything about my attention span, you know this posed a real problem. But add the word babysitter to the name Kemi Adetiba and you have my recipe for escalation of commitment.
I’ll tell you the things I liked about King of Boys first (and there are quite a few). We must start with Toyin Tomatoe. You may know her as Sola Sobowale, but if you spent a good number of Thursday evenings in the early 2000s watching Wale Adenuga’s Super Story series, you’ll understand why the name Toyin Tomatoe sticks. In King of Boys, Sobowale is the lead character, Eniola Salami. Acting isn’t something this woman does. It is something in her blood, something written into her genetic code, something the film gods pre-ordained. Sobowale didn’t play Eniola Salami—she became Eniola Salami. And in becoming her, a villainous character became human and likeable. Someone, everyone—please give this woman all the accolades. Adesua Etomi-Wellington, Toni Tones and Remilekun ‘Reminisce’ Safaru also delivered superb performances. In short, Kemi Adetiba assembled a stellar cast for this film.
Making a woman the kingpin of a criminal network in a Nigerian film is not just feminist—it is subversive. The film flips the stereotype of Lagosian women being nothing but dainty owambe and wedding crazed socialites. In King of Boy’s opening scene, Eniola Salami enters a room where some of her goons are torturing a man. She finishes the job by pounding his face with a hammer, wipes her bloody palms on her aso oke, and heads back to the party… like a badoski.
Taking on the genre of dark arts in a cultural context where comedy is preferred, is courageous. Infusing comedy into a film noir requires skill. I particularly enjoyed a character who is both a man of God and a man of the mob—he prays and quotes scriptures while planning theft and murder. It is hilarious, and commentary on the contradictions of Nigerian religiosity. Kemi Adetiba has range, and her versatility is rightly being rewarded: King of Boys had the highest opening week for a non-comedy Nollywood film.
The overarching theme of King of Boys is the eco-system of corruption in Nigeria (there are the politicians, the armed robbers, the technocrats, and etc). It is a worthy theme, but also the root of the film’s problems. An entire ecosystem was trying to be deconstructed in one film. As a result, much was left unanswered, unexplored and unfinished.
Small parts of the plot are left loose: Did the baby kidnapped in earlier scenes make it back to its parents? Bigger parts are undone too. Take the flashback scenes in which we are introduced to Eniola as a child. Ideally, these scenes would have helped to explain why Eniola got into a life of crime, and unraveled some of the pain that hardened her. The flashbacks do neither. While it is clear from the scenes that Eniola began working at a very young age in a slum, not much else is clear about her past. Is she an orphan? Did she have siblings? Was she forced into prostitution? There just weren’t enough dots to connect.
The only utility of the flashback scenes are they connect us with Kemi Salami’s (Adesua Etomi-Wellington’s) birth mother—a woman who took care of Eniola and taught her how to speak English. But even that circle is never completed: in later scenes, we learn Kemi Salami’s birth mother gets terminally ill, leading to Eniola adopting Kemi. I am still trying to figure out what the illness was or how she got it—all I know is everyone around her had to wear surgical masks. (Tuberculosis? Influenza? Ebola?).
Moreover, Eniola has a biological son whose character is never developed. How did he end up on drugs? Why was he babied so much? Why was he never brought into the family business? And why was Wellington’s character, Kemi, brought into it? A film should be able to stand on its own, even when leaving room for possible sequels and spin-offs.
With brutal editing, the narrative could have been less disjointed (and the film, far shorter). For example, there is a dedicated government official who investigates Eniola for money laundering. The script arguably could have survived without delving into his character. It definitely could have survived without the narrative of his sick wife. There was no time to process this ailing woman’s story while also grappling with Eniola (in three different time periods), her children, her squad, her political friends turned foes, her rival, and her rival’s squad.
By the end of the film, I think the writers were exhausted because the finish was lazy. Eniola Salami is built up to be ruthless. Yet, revenge for the man who systematically wrecked unfathomable havoc on every part of her life was a couple of gunshots via a messenger? Nah, come again fam.
King of Boy’s had the stuff of greatness, but it was burdened with baggage.
Regardless, on her worst day, Kemi Adetiba’s work is head and shoulders above that of her peers.