AV Club: Shanty Town is a picturesque crime thriller with glaring plot holes

Aesthetically well-executed with subpar writing that undercuts its potency

Three years ago, Netflix entered Nigerian film. The streaming giant’s reputation for glossy, big-budget movies was heralded as the next step for Nigeria’s promising filmmakers, even though opposition from the long-held cinema and piracy culture rose to contest its ambitions. In 2023, credible conversations still continue to follow the release of a new Netflix blockbuster, just as it’s been in the years since its entry.

Of their new movie ‘Shanty Town,’ there was relatively little buzz prior to its release late-last week. Underplaying the marketing’s intensity was a defining stroke towards the series’ reception. Whereas ‘Blood Sisters’ and ‘Far From Home’ had more of a big-budget roll-out, many people knew about ‘Shanty Town’ the day of its release. I didn’t go into the series with overblown expectations and that it proved to be an enjoyable, conversation-starting production was quite the satisfaction.

On the rudimentary scale, the six-part series follows the story of sex workers held in terror by the thug-slash-pimp Scar (who’s played by Chidi Mokeme). On the other hand however, the series attempts to connect the gritty realities of that underbelly to the high offices of state politics. These motivations are achieved to varying degrees, though sometimes there’s a fusion of interests which thicken the plot’s progression.

In recent years, we’ve seen New Nollywood grapple with themes of sexuality and consent. From ‘Citation’ to ‘Oloture’ and ‘Ijakumo,’ there’s been an unrelenting investigation into the currency of sex, especially its prospects existing within faux-conservative societies such as Nigeria. Usually from the perspective of women, these movies attempt to unfurl the realities of sex workers and the systems that uphold the mistreatment of women.

However, in new Netflix Naija crime thriller ‘Shanty Town,’ the series tries to present a moral evocation of society but its glaring plot holes diminish the viewer’s satisfaction. Scar’s emergence into the pimp leader role doesn’t possess enough depth to relay why people were so scared of him; however Mokeme brilliantly carried the role with muscular gravitas. While Enem’s arrival in Shanty Town, played by Ini Edo, set off a range of catastrophic events, her release from prison was offset by demanding the poetic “pack of cigarettes and a phone call”. It seemed to aloof and foreign to be the realities of a Nigerian prison, too cleanly written to be reality. Inem’s CIA-type infiltration into the fold of Shanty Town also doesn’t carry enough dramatic weight, while the touch of dark spirituality fails to affect the plot.

Some of the storytelling direction on ‘Shanty Town’ takes on the well-adopted lane of oppressor versus victim, and most times the individual parts don’t make for a well-designed whole. A better predecessor of such narrative is ‘On Black Sister’s Street,’ the 2007 novel from Nigerian novelist Chika Unigwe, which followed the lives of four African women trafficked to Belgium to become sex workers. Their lives intersect when a colleague dies, although with more biographical detail forming their present selves. While this draws parallels to Jackie’s character (played by Mercy Eke), the book takes it a step further by informing the unpredictable nature their desire for freedom has taken.

A similar perspective has been remarkably utilised in South African cinema, taking the racial and political material into their storytelling. Due to their divisive history, the Rainbow Nation has some of the most politically aware filmmakers in Africa. From classics like ‘Tsotsi’ to recent productions like ‘The Brave Ones’ and ‘Collision,’ their rich history is used as a backdrop to advance storytelling. Similarly, the currency of ordinary life is peeled back with close detail and there’s a gradual progression to connect the misfortune of poverty with the suaveness of wealth. In ‘Shanty Town,’ director Dimeji Abiola sets out to unearth the connections between the political and the underworld, but falls flat when lead antagonists such as Scar are conjured without much depth. This leaves viewers wondering what circumstances could possibly have shaped a man like Scar.


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Time constraints however impound on every production, especially for Netflix where economy of storytelling is the current trend. Acting-wise, ‘Shanty Town’ would no doubt be an early-year provider for forthcoming movie awards. Most people would walk away from this remembering Scar, so wonderfully embodied by Chidi Mokeme. The veteran actor in an interview with Channels TV revealed he suffered from Bell’s Palsy during the promotional period of ‘76,’ the Izu Ojukwu film which he also starred in. His return here fittingly captures his range as an actor: from his body gestures down to his code-switching between Nigerian languages, his performance is a career-highlight which places him favourably for future roles.

The women of ‘Shanty Town’ all delivered splendid performances as well. Nancy Isime proves that she gets roles not just by being well-connected, and Mercy Eke does well in her showing as Jackie. Both friends on-screen, they’re the prism through which Scar’s terrifying acts reflect in the early episodes. On their part, Nse Ikpe-Etim and Ini Edo (who’s rather divisive in her role as Inem) portray strong women characters. Their relationship isn’t as lovey-dovey as the former, but it’s certainly more rewarding and more consequential to the plot (the Ibibio spoken between them is also a refreshing touch). Although he doesn’t say much beyond “everywhere good” and “body dey pepper me,” Zubby Michael in the role of Colorado holds his own pretty well, a character many viewers would find themselves increasingly liking with every passing scene.

Aesthetically, ‘Shanty Town’ is a well-put together production. At this point, Netflix has a preference for certain kinds of stories and the creators sell it well. More crucially, a fine job is done of the execution, especially from a technical viewpoint. With the exception of its writing failing to advance the conversation of similar sex-meets-crime-meets-politics movies, the usage of cinematography is brilliant. The artsy design of Shanty Town was especially pleasing to the eyes, while the angle of the shots improved the film’s tensions. Perhaps the soundtrack could have been better, but again, I understand the pop-leaning direction. It’s like a child building a house of Lego bricks and it starts to rise above their heads. They can either continue or call it a day—for their unique motivations, the creators of ‘Shanty Town’ choose the second option.