How did it all start?
Chioma Akpotha as broadcaster asks a group of women in the first scene of Wives on Strike. There’s no spoiler in telling you, dear reader, that this film is about wives withholding something from their spouses. If you missed the trailer, you can’t miss the title. That something, is sex.
Wives on Strike is a simple enough story based on the general assumptions about men and women and their relationship to sex. In short, men want, need, require sex. Women tolerate it. Sex, according to this theory, is something women give to please the one they end up with.
There may be (scientific and sociologic) explanations for the apparent difference in libidos between men and women but that isn’t director Omoni Oboli‘s concern. Her film is invested in showing men as horny husbands. Several scenes are employed in showing us just how the film’s central husband, played by Kenneth Okonkwo, is a horndog. If Okonkwo’s character is a rabid inserter, one of his friends is an inseminating machine, frequently sending his wife to the maternity. When both men meet the discussion revolves around sex. Whether these men and their pals do anything else is unclear. Work, f*ck (or ‘jangolova’ as they call it), then repeat is the life. What else is a barely-educated man to do?
This shorthand to the life of the uneducated Nigerian male is as misleading as the film’s title. Wives on Strike makes believe the sole duty of a wife is the provision of sex, and claims that sex and striving are what makes up the life of the average Nigerian. Zero complexity in either case.
The film proceeds as an account of three women who, as the first scene shows, have attained some fame. How come? In a shabbily captured scene, the women foil the marrying off of a child to an older man. An idle camera crew records the whole thing and somehow the women get invited to a talk show with Akpotha’s character who, as these things turn out, is a senator’s wife. These three women are Uche Jombo (Madame 12:30), Oboli (Mama Ngozi), and Kehinde Bankole (Christie) in a group that surely has to be in competition for the freshest set of market women ever liveth.
In their role as market women, these three actresses find a freedom not readily available to them as middle-class characters. Jombo, in particular, runs away with it. She and her onscreen hubby Calistus, played by Julius Agwu, bring a delightful abandon to the film. Both shine. Okonkwo, as Papa Ngozi tries and thrives—and in a scene where he serenades his wife in Igbo, he is both cringeworthy and funny. Oboli succeeds. But Bankole is stilted: her beauty is that peculiar kind that doesn’t quite fit with this film’s program. Where Jombo unleashes a musical pidgin, Bankole is fidgety.
Mind you, all of the humour is beside the point, because Wives on Strike is about children’s rights. In Nigerian film, most laughter must come with message—a cross the industry has carried since Living in Bondage and maybe even before that to those tales told by night to children. Because this message is considered all important, little thought is given to elegance. A scene supposedly filmed in Paris, for example, places a stock photo of the Eiffel Tower behind a white man. An international station, called DNN, after you know what, has a studio more aesthetically challenged than the studios of MiTV.
There is no evidence to show that nothing but the most superficial effort went into production design. And the viewer comes out thinking she has seen a Nollywood film only millimetres better than those for the home video market. It feels like a rip-off since it is on the big screen. Very solid laughs pour forth but perhaps as compensation for not being worthy of its cinema placing, the film goes on for too long, dragging what could be less than an hour to almost two hours. As a result, the middle section is to be endured.
The poor characters endure worse: even as this film shows the uneducated class and uses pidgin, when it is time to hand a character a long serious monologue, the script gives it to one of the few characters speaking English. Most of the cogent arguments are given to the senator (Kalu Ikeagwu) and his wife. There is some condescension here: pidgin, it appears, is good for laughs but it can’t be trusted to deliver the sermon. Little wonder some actors slip out of character and into very good English from time to time.
Much has been made of the film’s similarity to Spike Lee’s Chiraq, but Wives on Strike is neither after Hollywood nor art. It is a public service announcement stop on the way to the bank. And even if it was shot before or around the time of either film, the apparent ancestors to Oboli’s film are 30 Days in Atlanta and Taxi Driver (Oko Ashewo) – both of which cleaned up nicely at the box office.
Wives On Strike wants to replicate the success of those two films without the regard both films accord their less than cultured characters. According to financial reports it has succeeded in doing so.
The smartest sequence in Wives On Strike comes in last. A Nollywood producer, Emem Isong playing herself, shows up and wants to buy rights to the story the viewer has just seen. It maybe be passé for other cinema cultures but the meta nature of the joke has freshness for Nollywood. The film travels from an opening scene on television to the suggestion of a movie at the end. A smart arc.
The viewer should smile at the conceit, be impressed at how Wives on Strike almost breaks the fourth wall in that last scene—and yet observe that Isong, too, isn’t speaking pidgin. Spare a thought for Nigeria’s most popular language: What does pidgin English have to do to get respect from cinema-Nollywood?