The Genevieve Nnaji-directed ‘Lionheart’ opens with the intersection of violence and the mundane I hope a Nigerian filmmaker tackles one day. The eponymous transport company, based in Enugu, is overrun by men demanding payment for helping fill seats in their buses. They troop in with a sense of entitlement roughing up workers as onlookers stand helpless.
But out comes Nnaji’s Adaeze Obiagu with a mini soap-box moment to calm tensions. This is the first of a few cheesy moments in the actor’s directorial debut as she steers affairs towards less edgy waters in her light-hearted drama that is, on the surface, about power plays within the Nigerian transport sector.
Nnaji is also steering ‘Lionheart’ safely through Africa’s murky distribution waters after she received $3 million from streaming giant Netflix for worldwide rights to her film. Homeside, this meant there was an African production rivaling the memes and chatter around the Sandra Bullock-led Netflix original ‘Birdbox’ – probably Nnaji’s biggest, ascribing a secondary layer of importance to this film that it otherwise would not have deserved.
As for the film itself, ‘Lionheart’ is a lot of things without really being anything, to be honest. Adaeze is a director at the family transportation business and she has an eye on her father’s (Pete Edochie) job as CEO when he retires. Also, of concern to her is a government contract up for grabs that will give her company stronger grounding in southern Nigeria.
All seems to be going well on the business side until the Obiagu patriarch suffers a heart attack, forcing him onto the sidelines. Adaeze is ready to step up and fill the power vacuum that ripples beyond Lionheart’s Enugu base but her father opts for his gregarious brother, Godswill (Nkem ‘Osofia’ Owoh) to run affairs whiles he recovers under the watchful eye of Adaeze’s sagely mother (Onyeka Onwenu).
The screenplay by committee (five writers including Nnaji are credited here) shies away from the conventional points of conflict this narrative could have had under different hands. While this means it resists the temptation to pluck at low hanging fruit, it also means it can’t fully subvert tropes familiar to such a story.
Adaeze being passed over for the top job was expected. But there is something innocuous about her losing out to her uncle. Though he pushes for some culture changes like instituting morning prayers, he really cedes control most of the way and resembles more of a sidekick. Of course, a successful argument can be made that this is all a grooming tactic.
The cordial relationship between Adaeze and Godswill means ‘Lionheart’ wants for some friction and depth when the story starts to lag. Commentary on gender and sexism in the Nigerian society is replaced with boring minutia about the transport business. There is a moment when an upset Adaeze pouts to her mother with the suggestion things would be different if she where man. But in an emblematic retort, Adaeze is promptly shut down by her ma. “His reasons have nothing to do with you being a woman.”
‘Lionheart’ does take the idea of family and legacy seriously. With this, we have a counterpoint to why Adaeze is so devoted to her father’s company. It’s also why her mother (wrongly?) rubbishes her gendered paranoia. In the world of ‘Lionheart’, family is the hub of nobility and good intentions even if it may not oversee perfect business module.
Yes, we get a pensive speech that communicates this ethos but more compelling beats are the one on ones Adaeze has with her mother or when the affable family dinner filled with smiles and friendly barbs provides our protagonist an escape from her increasingly turbulent work life.
I imagine there will be stronger gravitation to some of the film’s choices from Nigerians. A lot of the dialogue is in Igbo, raising the chemistry levels onscreen. Familiar faces are working in more subtle comfort zones. Owoh is no stranger to being a film’s main source of humor and he delivers easy laughs here, albeit with a much tighter leash. There is a quiet grace to Edochie’s measured performance as the unshaken family head. Kanayo O. Kanayo even shows up with ill intent as a rival transport company’s head who looks to capitalize on Lionheart’s rocky patch.
At the centre of affairs is Nnaji who is unfussy in her direction, showing up with her food flask and executing her simple vision coherently; with the fine complement of Yinka Edward’s cinematography, which utilizes a comforting warm palette.
‘Lionheart’ is certainly not without its flaws. The score is terribly distracting and a tonal mess. The central conflict is a tad too preposterous. There is also a lack of grit for a film that purports to be very interested in the transport business in Nigeria.
But the 90-minute running time and brisk pacing mean ‘Lionheart’ keeps it moving and never wants for entertainment value; like it says on the box. That said, it’s more likely to be remembered as Netflix’s first foray into Africa than anything else.