AV Club: ‘Blood Sisters’ & the value of criticism in Nollywood

On the varied reception of Netflix's first original Nigerian TV series

There is nothing as odd as showing up at a traditional Nigerian party in anything but traditional wear. Not only will you stick out like a sore thumb, you also attract the attention and questions as to the validity of your presence. Who invited you? Don’t you know how to dress to an owambe? Maybe you’re part of the help? No one might ask these questions verbally, but roaming eyes definitely will.

Maybe that’s why it’s a little absurd that the assassin hired to kill the groom at an engagement party in the first episode of ‘Blood Sisters,’ the first original Nigerian TV series for Netflix, came decked out in a leather jacket and a pair of jeans. Amid bright orange traditional outfits and shiny local caps, a guest that is inappropriately dressed for the occasion will attract eyes, which counters the point of discretely killing the main character at his nuptials. Of course, his target made him out, yanking away the element of surprise an assassin would supposedly have, leading to a hand-to-hand fight scene, despite owning a gun.

This sartorial mishap is an incredibly easy early flaw to spot in ‘Blood Sisters,’ a show that does have its merits, and stands out positively among the mixed bag of Nigerian films and shows that have landed on Netflix since the streaming giant took an active shine to cinema from Africa. This new, limited four part series digs into the aftermath of a murder, tracing its effects with a characteristic verve and some remarkable depth.

Kola Ademola (‘Deyemi Okanlanwon), the aforementioned groom, is killed by his fiancee’s best friend and maid of honour in a hotel room, while friends and family are gathered a few floors below for their engagement ceremony. It sort of happens in self-defence: Kola physically attacks Sarah (his wife-to-be) when she decides to call off the wedding due to his propensity for physical abuse. While joining her friend in defence, Kemi shoots Kola with the gun he confiscated from his grossly incompetent assassinator. What follows is a botched attempt at covering the murder, which digs Sarah and Kemi into the helter-skelter part of the plot, while the Ademola’s focus on their emotional turmoil.

It’s an engaging promise that does not fully justify it’s nearly 3.5-hour run time, but there’s enough movement in the storyline to keep things interesting. The acting on ‘Blood Sisters’ is consistently good – some you might even consider great, like Uche Jombo’s spot-on portrayal of Sarah’s mother. The two leads, Ini Dima-Okojie and Nancy Isime, who play Sarah and Kemi respectively, are wonderful individually and, as a pair, both show a strong chemistry that makes their on-screen ride-or-die friendship believable. They go through their ordeals with bravery and desperation, care and compassion, and the show is at its most encapsulating when it centres their bond over their high speed chase.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Netflix Nigeria (@naijaonnetflix)

The set up for the toxic Ademola family is also appealing. Kola Ademola, is given a thorough performance by ‘Deyemi Okanlawon. By watching his well mannered charm and easy smile, it makes sense that he is seen as the perfect golden boy by outsiders. Okanlawon switches to a visibly menacing candour in moments of anger without coming across as over the top. Even though he exits really early on, he is the ghost that looms large over the plot.

Then there is Femi Ademola (Gabriel Afolayan), the elder brother aggrieved that he’s not at the helm of the family’s pharmaceutical business, and his complementary, scheming wife Olayinka (Kehinde Bankole). Nascent actor Genevova Umeh plays the role of Timeyin Ademola, imbuing the character’s matrix of brilliance, insouciance and addiction problems with an admirable twitchiness. Acclaimed veteran Kate Henshaw portrays Uduak Ademola, the stern and consistently brawn-faced matriarch whose emotional abuse of her children, which could’ve been written off his tough love, is dutifully acknowledged on the show.

Unfortunately, aspects of the Ademola family were also some of the weakest points in the show.  The same subtlety that was used to portray Kola Ademola is absent with the two primary female antagonists, Uduak and Olayinka. The show felt the need to remind us what a monster Uduak was with every word she spoke. Yet, one would think someone as image conscious as her would be more willing to fake politeness. She was far more interesting when grieving her son or when she appeared briefly bothered by the effect that her past behaviour had on her children. Uduak’s character would have been more engaging if she were more manipulative and unpredictable, which would have made some dark revelations about her character towards the end more shocking and not obvious. As for Olayinka, the wife of the oldest Ademola son, her Lady Macbeth-style villainess is all too common in Nollywood. While her character was enjoyable to watch, her one-note cruelty became repetitive after a few appearances.

Both the highs and lows of the Ademola family arch is a snapshot of the mixed bag ‘Blood Sisters’ is. For the apt representation of police work in Nigeria, where nothing gets done unless money and proximity to power plays a role, there’s a tenacious detective with a bad ‘Chicago’ accent who is more perfunctory in the grand scheme of things than his appearances suggest. For the crooked driver that transports people across borders, there’s the incompetent criminal known to the police.

Depending on who you ask, ‘Blood Sisters’ is either great television, riddled with far too many flaws, or just adequate. For EbonyLife studios, the production company behind the show, that might be a net positive, considering that their recent efforts have not been met by a lot of positive reviews. Earlier this year, the company released ‘Chief Daddy 2: Going for Broke,’ an atrocious sequel to the blockbuster 2018 film that was also not very good. In the wake of the polarising discussions that followed the film on social media, EbonyLife shared a video of its founder Mo Abudu threatening some sort of bifurcated access to those with negative takes. Obviously, that didn’t land well with Nigerian Twitter, and it would’ve played a role in the online reactions if ‘Blood Sisters’ didn’t have any merits.

In the days after the new show made its way to Netflix, social media was littered with opinions, both positive and critical of the limited series. The negative opinions have been fairly passionate, with people pointing out the weak story and unrealistic elements of the plot. Others have just as intensely defended the production, stating the unfairness in comparing it to a Hollywood production, with many calling for people to simply enjoy it for what it is.

Criticising Nollywood productions in general can be a strange undertaking. Nollywood is one of the most prolific film industries in the world, with thousands of films made each year. Classic Nollywood films are famously low budget and appreciated for the ridiculous campiness as much as anything else. It’s only in recent years that Nollywood films have gotten serious enough funding to make large scale productions. It’s easy to say people should not be so harsh on an industry that is in its infancy in some ways.

As nice as it is to simply focus on the merits of any achievements made in this country, things rarely change unless there’s some negativity. At this point, creators should know that their audience cares about quality. Of course, in an ideal world, all negativity would be constructive criticism. But the nature of the internet means there will be unnecessary vitriol mixed which could sour people towards valid critiques. In order for healthy debates to be held however, it may be necessary to take the good with the bad.

But we also cannot blame viewers for simply being proud of progress and who aren’t yearning for their media to be up to a certain standard. There’s room for cheesy, predictable work. For some viewers, there’s even room for out right questionable acting and story decisions. After all, don’t many of us watch questionable work from Hollywood? For those who want more varied stories, the success of shows like ‘Blood Sisters’ may mean more investment into the Nigerian film industry and more opportunities for stories of different shades to be told.

Words by Moore Wright and Dennis Ade-Peter.