Biyi Bandele, the Nigerian writer who crossed over to major success as a director in Nollywood, has died at 54, according to his daughter Temi Bandele. His passing comes at what many consider to be the peak of his career.
Bandele was born in Kafanchan, northern Nigeria, during the Biafran War. As a child, his father’s war stories drove him to write his own. While attending school, at 14, he left home to earn a living doing odd jobs.
He studied drama at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, from 1987. His unpublished play Rain, which he wrote in his first year, won the International Student Playscript Competition sponsored by the British Council, and in 1990, he was invited to England for a reading at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Soon after, he got a job on the arts desk of a weekly Nigerian newspaper in London and began to live there. By then, at 22, he had two novel manuscripts finished.
His first novel The Man Who Came in from the Back of Beyond was published in 1991. A novel within a novel, it follows a student and his English teacher. The Sympathetic Undertaker, also published in 1991, tells the life story of a man who has gone mad, through the eyes of his older brother. In 1999, The Street, set in the UK, was published.
Bandele was the Talawa Theatre Company’s writer-in-residence from 1994 to 1995, and in 1996, the resident dramatist of the Royal National Theatre Studio. From 2000 to 2001, he attended the University of Cambridge and was a Judith E. Wilson Fellow at Churchill College. In 2001, he led an adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play Yerma, and from 2002 to 2003, he was a Bush Theatre Royal Literary Fund Resident Playwright. He would later become a resident artist at New York University (NYU) and an arts by-fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, and receive a 2019-20 Fulbright Scholarship at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Bandele’s notability as a writer came in 2007, with the release of his novella Burma Boy. Inspired by his father’s stories about the infamous Burma expedition, the novel follows a 14-year-old Nigerian boy’s tumultuous journey as a soldier in the arena considered to be World War II’s “most vicious battleground.”
Bandele made his directorial debut in 2013, with Half of a Yellow Sun, an adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel of the same name. The film premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and in Lagos in 2014. The film was a commercial success, but not so much critically. Because of its Biafran War setting, it was banned by the Nigeria Film and Video Censorship Board shortly after its Lagos debut. But it had put his name on the film map.
Bandele went on to direct the third season of the youth-focused MTV series Shuga and the 2015 drama Fifty, a glimpse into the lives of four successful Nigerian women. He served as executive producer, with Spike Lee, of the 2018 film Nigerian Prince, about a Nigerian American teenager who joins his cousin’s online scamming business.
In 2020, he directed the documentary Fela Kuti: The Father of Afrobeat, for the BBC and the Toronto International documentary festival Hot Docs.
For Bandele’s film and TV career, 2022 came as a defining year. He directed the first Nigerian Netflix original series Blood Sisters, which became a hit, with 11 million hours viewed in its first five days, landing it at No. 9 on the platform’s Global Top 10.
In September, a new film Elesin Oba, an adaptation of Wole Soyinka’s play Death and the King’s Horseman, written and directed by Bandele, will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and on Netflix later in the year.
Bandele, his friends and family say, loved his work and had much more planned. In a tribute, Olongo Africa publisher Kola Tubosun shared that Bandele was working on the final revision of a historical novel about Samuel Ajayi Crowther, his first book of fiction in 14 years. The novel, entitled Yoruba Boy Running, is forthcoming in 2023. It took him three years to write.
News of his passing was followed by tributes from writers including Bernardine Evaristo, Aminatta Forna, Cameron Bailey, and Nduka Otiono, as well as the producer Mo Abudu and the actor Deyemi Okanlawon.
“As a writer, I’m still on a journey,” Bandele once said. “As a creative person, I am still on a journey with so many ideas that I just want to explore. You know, I am a traveller in a metaphorical sense.”