Asake and Ezinne, the two young wives of Maduka, have been married into a life of rivalry. They compete for the attention of their husband, and when Ezinne goes into labour, Asake induces hers so that she can give birth on the same day. The two women’s daughters, Yejide and Awele, grow into antagonism of their own, helping their mothers who work as chefs and fighting the other when needed.
Maduka is an Igbo man, as is Ezinne, and Asake is Yoruba. The family, or two families, live in Ottanwa, a Yoruba community where Maduka is, as he reminds them at one point, “the biggest spare parts dealer.” Asake and Ezinne take their food businesses to Buka Street, the food centre of the community, where Asake specializes in amala and Ezinne in ofe akwu. Eventually, Yejide and Awele get married on the same day, to very different men whose decisions determine the women’s lives. Then Awele and her husband leave Ottanwa, ending, as far as Yejide is concerned, a rivalry that had drained the family.
Battle on Buka Street is not only what it is marketed as, not simply a comedy built around food. It is so much more: an exploration of rivalry, envy, ambition, and the dynamics of hurt; a contemplation of dreams; and how these shards are deposited on the shores of new generations. It is a probing melodrama dressed as a comedy, an expansive tale that merits its runtime of 2 hours, 20 minutes.
The cast is a talented one, and most are capable of both histrionics and thoughtfulness. The lead roles of Yejide and Awele are handled by Funke Akindele and Mercy Johnson, respectively. The younger Asake is, briefly, played by Bimbo Ademoye, and the older one, with whom we stay for most of the film, by Sola Sobowale. Ditto Ezinne: first by Perpetua Ukadike, and then by Tina Mba.
Nkem Owoh is their husband Maduka, the balance in his family, who holds off the two sides from all-out war. When Awele leaves and her mother Ezinne falls ill, he finally has peace, and so do Yejide and Asake.
Serenity ruptures when Awele returns, to Yejide’s terror, and the script, taking up the challenge, goes deeper into the layers of conflict. It is not merely mother and daughter vs. mother and daughter; we begin to see mother vs. daughter in each household. Yejide is afraid of competition but defers to Asake. “Look at me very well,” Asake warns her daughter, “we are all going to die there.”
Their rivals are no better. Awele, beaten by her husband (Kelvin Ikeduba) after she finds him cheating, is angry that her mother Ezinne, sick and puzzled by her daughter’s venom, now wants peace. “Mama, please, I am begging you in the name of God,” Awele warns. “This is my battle. Allow me fight it myself. Do not interfere. Please.” She has dragged her children down to Ottanwa with her and explodes when her oldest daughter (Uche Obunse) challenges that decision. The three generations of women clash and what follows is delightful verisimilitude in dialogue.
Awele flares up. “I will break your head,” she shouts at her daughter, and Ezinne, angry, shouts the same to her.
“You are an idiot,” Awele says to her daughter, and Ezinne says the same to her.
“Sit down!” Ezinne orders Awele.
Both women are crying, still hurt from the past. Awele has pent-up aggression from her marriage that needs an outlet; her mother wishes she had stayed and not disgraced her.
There was a time, little over a decade ago, when Mercy Johnson was widely considered the most versatile actor in Nollywood, and here her meld of envy, hurt, and dread around Awele’s return gently remind us of that. Her father scolds her for choosing to open her restaurant on Buka Street, right opposite her sister’s. “Buka Street is a general ground,” her mother replies in her defence. “The sky is big for everybody, please.” But her father understands that something else is afoot. “For people like you, yes,” he says to his wife. “For people like her, no. It is not enough.”
And it isn’t. “Did somebody swap my mother with another mother?” Awele asks later. “No, my mother will teach me how to attack, she will give me weapons to fight my enemies.” Her mother’s reply: “When you grow older, learn to choose your battles.”
Battle on Buka Street has remarkable, enlivening breadth — a rare quality in Nollywood — and leads us into the lives of Yejide and Awele’s children. All is not well in Yejide’s household, too. Her son Ademide (Moshood Fattah) can’t get into a band because his father killed a man. Her husband’s crime follows her children, wrecking their dreams. When Ademide announces that he is going to America, Awele forces her daughter Ifunanya into agreeing to travel, presumably to Canada. But the cousins are both living the same lie, and when they meet “abroad,” not in America or Canada but in Lagos, they form the relationship that their mothers’ rivalry robbed them of. The script, though, gives Ifunanya occasionally weak lines, and Ademide clunky, summative dialogue, which is made worse by Fattah’s mechanistic delivery.
In a poignant scene, Awele brings up Yejide’s “murderer husband in jail.” For a moment it seemed a physical fight is inevitable, but in a fresh twist to a Nollywood trope, Yejide steps back and runs away. The battle, she realizes, is psychological. When they both “go spiritual,” Awele to church, Yejide to a deity, they fail.
It is in the third arc of the story, when Yejide’s husband (Femi Jacobs) returns from prison, and Yejide reveals a great secret, that a reckoning engulfs them all. It is also at this point that the story, moving smoothly, runs into a plot gap. The information is supplied later, but it comes too late to prevent a disjoint in the flow.
Yet the achievement of Battle on Buka Street is that it takes what might have become another trite Nollywood execution and turns it into a portrait of familial pain, of the bonds between mothers and daughters, and how each generation enlists the other to vicariously live its dreams through it. This is a story of ordinary people living interesting lives and taking fate into their hands. Here, the dreams of the poor are wrecked by their actions and human history rather than national socio-politics. (It is an angle made more interesting by the fact that its producer, Funke Akindele, ran for office, as deputy governor of Lagos under the PDP.)
It owes its success to the script by the quartet of Jack’enneth Opukeme, Stephen Oluboyo, Jemine Edukugbe, and Akindele, who gets a credit. Through its plotting in mini arcs, their script works overtime, pacing events, knitting developments in the many characters, folding back stories into tight dialogue, and keeping the plot moving. The result is a narrative that, although filled with detail, is also compressed, which lets its emotions simmer.
Battle on Buka Street is marketed as a comedy so as to fit Funke Akindele’s brand, but it is time to also recognize her as the capable dramatic actor that she, most recently in the YA series Far from Home, has become. Above all, she has become the industry’s most attuned producer, understanding which stories connect to viewers, and now boasting the country’s two highest grossing films of all time, first with 2020’s Omo Ghetto: The Saga making N636 million, and now Battle of Buka Street’s N668 million. (Both were released during Christmas.)
One benefit of prioritizing an actor’s brand over their range is awards’ eligibility, which is why Akindele and Johnson both received nominations in Best Comedy Actress at the AMVCAs, and lost, to public surprise, to their co-star Bimbo Ademoye, for another performance. Yet between Akindele’s vulnerability and grit and Johnson’s anger and persistence, that award should have come home to either, and with one of the film’s final scenes, when as the two women are locked in a vice-like grip Johnson’s Awele gives Yejide a look of compassion, I’d pick Johnson. There were a few travesties at the AMVCAs, and it is an indictment of the industry that Battle on Buka Street, one of the best realized films out of Nollywood, lost both Best Film and Best Writing to a movie it is much, much better than. ♦
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