AV Club: ‘The Man of God’ Is About A Pastor-Turned-Crook But The Bigger Story Remains Unsolved
a movie that asks more questions than it can answer
a movie that asks more questions than it can answer
This month, Bolanle Austen-Peters’ ‘The Man of God’ was released on Netflix Naija. Its debut on the streaming platform was primed for notable viewership, bolstered also by Austen-Peter’s important role among the foremost cultural curators in African theatre. For years, her Terra Kulture outfit have produced stage plays which largely pay homage to great personalities and traditions. Partly influenced by the Yoruba travelling theatre culture, her plays are scarcely reproduced on digital platforms, making ‘The Man of God’ one of the early mainstream showcases of a BAP Production.
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Although the film mainly revolves around religion, its earliest appeal was the juxtaposition with music. ‘The Man of God’ opens in present time with the protagonist Samuel (played by Akah Nnani) performing Fela-esque music in a place that could easily be the New Afrikan Shrine. As a start, this choice was quite explosive but Samuel didn’t seem in-sync with the music being performed, which was far more energetic than he could afford. Immediately, this pokes holes in the narrative, failing to possess the grainy quality of real sound, or hold candle to the character of Samuel, in a way that moves the narrative. He also can’t seem to stop smoking on a blunt, on-stage and off, but we don’t see him indulge in this act throughout the other scenes in the film.
Some might consider this a harsh critique of what obviously is a background to the main action, but it’s a quintessential example of the film’s persistent disregard for detail. Later, we see Samuel being a university undergraduate and still performing at shows around the state, but there’s not enough to ground the viewer in either of his worlds. Few scenes dedicate themselves to capturing the university’s peculiarities, discarding classic locations (lecture halls or a night party) that would have strengthened the narrative. Beyond that, the affairs of an infamous music industry is rarely broached. He makes mention of playing some gigs but those scenes are treated as inconsequential, a breezy prelude to the main course of action.
The shining light in those early parts of the film is Samuel’s best friend Rekya (Dorcas Shola-Fapson) who also doubles as his lover and band member. Her acting captures the dilemma of modern relationships, torn between one’s desires and what’s good for both lovers. The film is coloured by her flirtatious character, easing the heavy sense of melancholy that follows Samuel. And yet, although her character was necessary, the trajectory wasn’t respected in the overall plotline. When she excitedly tells Samuel of a business that’s been raking in mad revenue, there’s a nagging possibility that one of her trysts could have been followed. A character from there could have resurfaced later to strengthen the narrative quality yet little is done to advance this.
Instead, the story evolves with the introduction of Teju (Osas Ighodaro) and Joy (Atlanta Bridget Johnson), completing a love triangle around Samuel. Its strengths come into view then, recording the nuances of conversation as Samuel’s infatuation with Joy clashes with Teju’s affections for him. In one humorous scene, after Teju tries for the umpeenth time to get him to attend Bible Study, Rekya tells Samuel it’s obvious she wants to have sex with him. “Just give am strong thing, sharp sharp…she go free you,” she says in a smooth manner which underscores the braziness of her character.
The theme of abuse was visited early in ‘The Man of God’, but there wasn’t a clear direction for its execution. Samuel is immersed in the activities of a musician, but his past creeps up: the film had opened with flashback scenes where his father, a popular pastor, used to beat him mercilessly, quoting Proverbs 14:12 to justify his rather severe disciplinary methods: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof is destruction”. That statement is finely worked into Samuel’s central dilemma of finding himself, haunting him when he makes any choices.
When Samuel becomes a pastor, the narrative comes full circle. But, just as in earlier parts of the film, some crucial aspects are left underdeveloped or completely glossed over. Samuel’s marriage to Teju is skimmed over, which makes it difficult to feel its conflicts later on. When his best friend Rekya resurfaces, involved in even murkier deals, there’s no mention of its details or how Samuel develops into them. The church sermons and politics vividly evokes the pomp of what happens in real life, and Eucharia Anunobi brilliantly executes her brief role as an uncouth reverend. For a while, this change of setting offers a feel-good, modernist portrayal of contemporary Christianity in Nigeria but then you remember why Samuel’s here after all–to find his true self, be it musician or preacher or doting family man.
That internal conflict is never resolved with sufficient depth. It’s even more striking that about a week before this film’s release, a gospel musician met her untimely death at the hands of an abusive husband. That ugly event opened a conversation into how society turns a blind eye to anything which remotely concerns religion. The film’s also coming at a time when more than ever people are questioning the moral pedigree of their religious leaders.
African societies are intrinsically bound by religion. While centuries have passed since our initial encounters with missionaries, it still remains deeply entrenched in many countries including Nigeria where religion and state typically intertwine. ‘Man of God’ is obviously a timely film and that is why its accumulative misjudgements weigh so heavy in the end. Nigerians today are demanding justice from a lot of things, and our stories should reflect that. Where’s the justice in Samuel being traumatised and still shamed for being unable to love his abusers? Where’s the justice in Rekya being discarded like just any other character? In movies like these conservative moral lessons should take the back seat in favour of narrative balance.
Overall, ‘The Man of God’ shines with really good production—great costuming, a brilliant cast and well-done scenery—but the storyline doesn’t advance the many important conversations that has left many young Nigerians with great need for therapy. That glory never came and perhaps indeed, that is the lesson to be learnt in film and in life. Nobody is coming to save you or quicken your road to self-discovery–life is instead, a balancing act between pursuit and fear.
Watch ‘The Man of God’ on Netflix Naija here.
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