Professor Adekeye Adebajo reflects on the Nigerian film "Elesin Oba" (The King’s Horseman), which was released on Netflix in October 2022 to widespread acclaim.
The Nigerian film Elesin Oba (The King’s Horseman) was released on Netflix last month, to widespread acclaim. The movie is an adaptation of the most famous work of Wole Soyinka, the country’s Nobel laureate and foremost playwright, the 1975 Death and The King’s Horseman.
The movie was directed by Soyinka protégé Biyi Bandele, who tragically died in August before the film’s Netflix release. A versatile artiste, Bandele had previously directed the 2013 adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 Biafra novel, Half of A Yellow Sun. His last work, Elesin Oba, is thus a fitting tribute to the illustrious career of a 54-year old director who Soyinka described as “a unique talent”.
Soyinka’s Death and The King’s Horseman was written while the playwright was in exile at England’s Cambridge University in 1972/1973. The play was based on real-life events in colonial British-ruled Nigeria during World War 2. It is set in the marketplace in which Elesin Oba is joyfully dancing himself to death through ritual suicide. He convinces Iyaloja (mother of the market women) to let him marry a young virgin — her son’s fiancé — as a way of spreading his seed and leaving a legacy before proceeding to join his dead monarch. Iyaloja reluctantly grants Elesin Oba’s final wish.
Totally disrespecting traditional African customs, the British district officer, Simon Pilkings, and his wife Jane, dress up in egungun (masquerade) costume to attend a ball. Pilkings had earlier assisted Elesin Oba’s son, Olunde, to win a scholarship to an English medical school. As the horseman tarries to fulfil his destiny, his prevarication allows time for Pilkings to arrest him, to prevent what the intellectually shallow and culturally insensitive colonial officer and his similarly condescending wife consider a “barbaric” act.
As Elesin Oba is imprisoned, Iyaloja comes to taunt and condemn him for having betrayed his king, whose spirit will now roam the earth and be prevented from entering the afterlife. The horseman has thus brought shame to the entire community. This chain of events results in further tragedy.
Bandele’s film, Elesin Oba, sticks closely to the plot and prose of Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. The marketplace and music are omnipresent, while the colourful costumes and cinematography enhance the spectacle. Elesin Oba is played by the impressive Odunlade Adekola, while Shaffy Bello is outstanding as Iyaloja.
The vain horseman is susceptible to flattery by “Olohun-iyo” and other praise-singers. As Iyaloja cautions him: “The earth is yours. But be sure the seed you leave in it attracts no curse.” However, Elesin Oba desecrates his sacred duty through his uncontrolled sexual urges. He dishonours his community’s cultural norms by simultaneously staging a wedding and a funeral.
The times are further put out of joint as the social order is disrupted by the alien force of British rule. In stark contrast, Elesin Oba’s son Olunde demonstrates that, even with his Western education, he has a deeper commitment to his communal traditions than his father, vociferously defending the horseman’s duty to commit suicide by comparing it to the sacrifices made by British soldiers during the ongoing second world war.
Bandele clearly sought to celebrate Soyinka’s poetic English prose through the movie. However, it seems that Elesin Oba — like Hubert Ogunde’s 1980 classic Aiye — could have lent itself better to an all-Yoruba script with English subtitles rather than mainly Yoruba songs and limited Yoruba dialogue.
This would have vividly demonstrated that a rich, ancient African language was capable of carrying world culture, and may have attracted more attention to itself as a contender for best foreign film awards.
Nevertheless, Patrick Ezema described the movie as “a perfectly executed depiction of Yoruba culture”, while John Anderson celebrated it as “a film of grand acting, flamboyant colour, vaulting ambition and global conflict”.
Professor Adekeye Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.
This article first appeared in Business Day on 28 November 2022.