When last did you see a white American child killed on camera? When last did you see a bullet tearing through her young body, after it had torn through her father’s, and then watch her bloody face and blonde hair float on the bloody shore? When last did you watch, in gory detail, such a child murdered onscreen with her family crying? Maybe you can, but I can’t remember ever seeing that even in films where the point is to tell us that violence is the brutal daily reality that the children in focus are familiar with. And if you have seen that, the reason why it isn’t widespread is because there is a moral code around the onscreen depiction of violence, a code that protects the innocence of society’s most powerless.
That code is not extended to the little girl murdered in the first two minutes of Shanty Town, in a sequence set in a Lagos waterside community called Shangisha in 2004. There is an attack on the community, and a mother, aided by her husband, rushes her twin daughters to a boat, to escape. As the father faces one of the daughters, to hurry his goodbye, a bullet tears through his chest and buries itself in his child. As she falls into the water, we see the murdered girl three times: we see her face, the blood from her nose and mouth. We see it three times, as if the camera, not content with her destruction, were determined to disembody even her final dignity at death.
This is not, coyly, gritty art: it is violation — violence porn. It is depressing that these shots made it to the final cut, and perhaps a testament to the desensitization of Nigerians to violence that the massive praise for this series is not followed by a massive condemnation of how this scene was shot — in a way Netflix would certainly not let it be shot were the girl white.
The mother and one daughter escape unarmed. Rowing in the creeks, they are found by a boat full of militants, who point guns at them. As we watch the fearful face of the surviving daughter, one of the militants recoils in what seems to be recognition. The face of the surviving daughter, the magnification of her guilelessness, works as a counterbalance to the breach of her twin’s humanity, and in the process makes clearer how manipulative and unnecessary it is.
But if you moved past these opening four minutes, if you could, you will enter a story of crime, community, freedom, and punishment that is tightly plotted and well-acted by enough of the cast that, despite glaring narrative gaps, it rises to the top shelf of Netflix’s Nollywood offerings. Director Dimeji Ajibola, working with a screenplay by Xavier Ighorodje and Donald Tombia, realizes a sense of the epic, particularly in the first episode.
The titular Shanty Town is introduced in eloquent scenes of lived-in realism: a boy jumps a van, pulls off the wig of a girl by the roadside; children gather to play, dispersed only an older boy who shoots into the air, in a casual way, and the children simply regroup and continue playing as if nothing happened. Here, these scenes say, life is casual but also precarious. This, the scenes say, is what “normal” looks like for people living here. It is heartbreaking, also, about the future of these kids: When the central gang arrives, hoisting guns, their leader throws Dollars in the air and the kids shout in delight and scramble for the notes. It is engrossing world-building, and, despite those earlier flaws, perhaps the most maximized opening 12 minutes of any Nigerian TV series — every well-intended detail counting.
For all his seeming generosity, the women of the community are held hostage by the gang leader. His name is Scar, a character realized with immediate detail and terrifying power by Chidi Mokeme, in a rare domineering performance by a Nollywood actor. The women form his prostitution ring and make money for him, enough money to buy their freedom — until they decide to, and he makes them understand that holds their fates in his hands.
One of the women, the resourceful Jackie (Mercy Eke), comes to that realization too late. Another, Shalewa (Nancy Isime), is denied. Yet another, Ene (Nse Ikpe-Etim), who runs the girls for him, must navigate her loathing of him and her need to keep her job and his interest. And as the fourth woman, Inem (Ini Edo), returns from jail, where Scar left her to rot, she knows that she must, finally, face him.
Inem is Scar’s ex-lover, a position that Ene temporarily fills, and the only one actually close to his heart. But even she is not close enough to not be pimped out to Chief Fernandez (Richard Mofe-Damijo), the only character who holds power over Scar, a man with whom he has a deep tie, a man who treats him as useful only for illegal activity.
Shanty Town is about Scar’s conflicts: with Chief, with his community, and, in a glimpse, with his person. The last one pokes out when he is kidnapped by Dame Dabota (Shaffy Bello), Chief’s rival for governor, who sways him over to her side. Bello’s Dame Dabota gets cartoonish and is full of cackles, but she does deliver a memorable anecdote about admiring Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Queens: powerful women, she says, “but I didn’t know their names. Scar, I wanted to be women whose names I didn’t know.” It hits the viewer what she means.
Parts of the show’s dialogue are obvious (“Chief Fernandez wants to be governor. He’s my rival. He’s a very powerful man. I concede”), and the fact that Bello pulls this one off doesn’t make up for it being overwritten. Elsewhere, the dialogue begs for modulation. Frequently, the characters remind us: “Na so this place be.” Such reification works for Scar’s characterization at the start because we hadn’t seen Scar do so much, but because we have seen Shanty Town, through Jonathan Kovel’s cinematography, and therefore already know too well how it is, it comes across as too much.
Ultimately, the story of crime and punishment that Shanty Town tells is not a new one, but it is made fresh by, above all, the performances. It may largely be Mokeme’s Scar’s show, but it would not work if Isime and Ikpe-Etim do not enhance what, on paper, would be stock characters we have seen before in Nollywood.
As Shalewa, whose attempt to buy her freedom makes her a pawn in Scar’s dangerous game, Isime successfully taps into her natural charisma and conveys all the anxiety, fear, survival instincts, and conscience of a young woman who does what she must in a society that keeps her at the foot of the ladder. It is her fidgeting, in that first scene with Scar, that allows him to appear more terrifying; it is her stripped-down seductiveness that improves her scenes with Peter Okoye’s Femi Fernandez (Chief’s son); and it is her vulnerable face, as Chief rubs her breasts in an all-too-real scene, that gives the show its small heart.
But the performance I did not see coming was Mercy Eke as Jackie: she inhabits her, gives her a stubborn will that allows her dream of freedom to resonate throughout the series. For the first time, it seems, a former Big Brother Naija housemate is able to actually act, to hold her own against veterans. (Disclosure: another Big Brother Naija former housemate has since impressed: Tobi Bakre.)
The sisterly, cat-and-mouse dynamic between Ini Edo’s Inem and Nse Ikpe-Etim’s Ene gives the story breadth, and their first meeting, a conversation conducted almost entirely in Ibibio, is freeing and realistic. Ikpe-Etim, one of Nollywood’s technically equipped actors, makes Ene both fascinating and revolting to watch. Even as jealousy underpins her every move, her moral code is initially indecipherable. She wants violence against her competitors but she also wants a limit to punishment. There is a balancing quality to her presence in the community, keeping the girls in line, even calling out Scar despite knowing what he can do. After Inem’s battering at the hands of Chief, she quips at Scar, “Na so Chief dey do. Wetin you don do about am?” Ikpe-Etim is good at masking Ene’s real feelings, making her unreadable at times, because it is how she must play to survive.
It is only with Ini Edo’s Inem that there is some balance of power with Scar. He probably loves her, and, when she is angry, he softens. Yet Inem is underwritten, and, of all the central characters, is the one that lacks nuance, which creates gaps in the plot. When she reveals her true motive, we are left wondering how she comes to, in a matter of days, know the nooks and cranny of Shanty Town. Surely, the description of a former community member will not suffice in such dangerous territory where even the street boys, who must surely be watching everything, work for Scar?
It is also with Inem that the show takes another erroneous stab at violence porn. By opting to indulgently show her sadistic rape in the full glare of the viewer—she is choking for breath from the flogging, she is shrieking in pain, she is crying—the story, like with the murdered young girl floating on water, cheapens what should have been presented as the violation of humanity that it is. I think that rape could be shown onscreen; what makes this one aggravating is that the camera’s intention seems to be to simply present violence without a filter of meditation.
Added to the questionable presentation of violence is the curious decision to often employ a split screen when showing a gruesome murder. First, the buildup beautifully juxtaposes the impending murder with a sexual foreplay elsewhere, creating tension, and then it, puzzlingly, it breaks the screen in two to show both when what we needed to see was the murder. Why not leave the viewer immersed in the moment?
Each time the split screen pops up, there is no apparent effect in how we perceive the story. Such stylized but unearned choices break the flow of narrative. Why, in another example, is Inem’s beating of a gang member for harassing one of the girls filmed in dramatic slow motion? If the intention is to frame her power, then it should not come at the cost of flow. Style should enhance substance, not obstruct it.
The gritty realism of Shanty Town goes for extremes, but the show’s best asset is its characters, and none more so than Scar, whom Mokeme turns into one of the great villains of Nigerian film and one of its best characters ever. (In a way, the show lionizes him, which is unsurprising considering that Netflix, in chase of drama, has a track record of glamourizing even real-life villains, like in Inventing Anna and Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. But as we watch him bathe in a bathtub attended by women, and as the gang ready their guns, we see that the show is piecing together visual statements of his power.)
Scar does not have the stoic rage of Reminisce’s antiheroic Makanaki in King of Boys or the elocution of Ramsey Nouah’s glamourous, devilish Richard Williams in Living in Bondage: Breaking Free. Unlike those others, he does not want power for a purpose; he grips power to fill his own emptiness, which is why his sense of ownership of the women in his life is terrifying. When he kills one of them, he caresses her severed head, then uses the blade of the axe to wipe his forehead of blood. Ene voices her surprise at his overdoing and he threatens her. His relentlessness is akin to that of the Old Nollywood villains and it is why his end registers.
The show ends with a postscript of verisimilitude: … and the peace and victory the women of Shanty Town won is only … I expected the final words to be: the beginning. But the show does even better; it goes for: temporary. A swing at real life. ♦
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