Gangs of Lagos Delivers Compelling Action
Gangs of Lagos, Amazon Prime Video’s debut African original film, directed by filmmaker Jadesola Osiberu, begins and ends with a coup. Set in Isale Eko, the film follows a boy named Obalola (Tobi Bakre) and his friends Ify (Chike Osebuka) and Gift (Adesuwa Etomi-Wellignton). Obalola dreams of becoming a computer coder and migrates to San Francisco; Ify dreams of becoming a global Afrobeat star; and Gift dreams of becoming Ify’s manager. Poverty pushes the plot into motion, forcing them to navigate the dangerous world of organized crime to survive. Through Obalola’s eyes, we see the chaos in Isale Eko. Obalola is a complex and multi-dimensional character, and his journey throughout the film provides insight into the harsh realities of life in the ghetto.
The film opens with a procession of costumed dancers, known as masquerades, participating in the Eyo Festival. One of the masquerades enters a room and greets a man. “What are you looking for,” the man asks the masquerade. The dancer pulls up his regalia, brings out a Beretta gun, and fires the man. The man’s wife screams in horror. Blood splatters on the infant Obalola in his cradle.
Now a pre-teen and armed with a knife, a young Obalola (played by Maleek Sanni) and his friend Ify (played by Oluwanifemi Lawal) attack a rich woman in a traffic jam. They steal her bag, which contains some cash and her American passport. The woman reports the incident to Alaye Bam Bam (played by Ayo Lijadu), an influential street kingpin and political godfather. Terrible (Black Kamoru), one of Alaye Bam Bam’s associates, brings Obalola in. However, Obalola’s bravery and street smarts earn him affection from a gang leader named Nino (Tayo Faniran). Nino becomes Obalola’s foster father after Obalola leaves his hyper-religious and abusive mother.
After Nino’s death, Obalola becomes increasingly drawn into the world of organized crime. He becomes the official right-hand man of the greedy and callous Kazeem (terrifically played by Olarotimi Fakunle), and later a bodyguard to Kazeem’s daughter and his childhood crush Teni (Bimbo Ademoye). Despite his involvement with the gang, Obalola maintains his integrity and desire to escape street life. Obalola witnesses the brutal violence that permeates Isale Eko and quickly learns to navigate the dangers of his surroundings.
The film’s fight sequences are some of the most visceral and intense moments in the film—they showcase the brutal nature of street fighting where anything goes and the only rule is to survive. Director Jadesola Osiberu cleverly curates the fight scenes to indicate the film’s turning points and rising stakes.
The first standout fight scene in the film takes place after the brutal murder of the charismatic street lord Nino. Nino’s squad and their opponent meet in the street. What comes next is a fierce battle that leaves both gangs bloodied and battered. The combat is filmed in a frenzy, handheld technique that places the audience in the center of the action. The use of fast cuts and close-ups adds to the intense energy and chaos of the scene.
Another memorable fight scene takes place after the timid and soft Ify is savagely murdered towards the end of the film. The fight happens on the streets and in a dilapidated building and involves dozens of fighters on both sides. The scene is shot in a broad, sweeping manner that catches the scale of the battle. To add to the madness of the scene and allow the audience to thoroughly relish the choreography of the fight, the swift movement of the cameras carefully takes the protagonists as they battle with their rivals.
Osiberu displays her directorial skill by juxtaposing sweetness with tension. Two key instances of this are the gruesome barbershop murder scene and Ify’s funeral. The moment that Kazeem walks into the barbershop, it seems obvious that something sinister will happen. After Kazeem walks in, the barber fearfully prostrates to welcome him and chases customers out of the shop. Then, Kazeem commands the barber to stay outside for a period. He sits on a chair opposite his archrival London (played by the Fuji musician Wasiu ‘Pasuma’ Alabi), a drug pusher and human trafficker. Kazeem and London wildly play off each other. Emotions reach a boiling point, both men draw their weapons and Kazeem kills London. Mama Ify’s (Chioma Akpotha) grieving but aggressive monologue at her son’s funeral casts an ominous spell on the film. “For one scar, ten men shall fall,” she declares. “Isale Eko must not know peace. I said it!”
Gangs of Lagos draws from both City of God, a Brazilian crime drama directed by Fernando Meirelles, and Gangs of New York, an American historical drama directed by Martin Scorsese. Like City of God, Gangs of Lagos is a brilliant exploration of the lives of residents in an impoverished community. Like Gangs of New York, the movie offers a portrayal of the gruesome thirst for domination and retribution in a chaotic community.
Though Obalola’s strenuous life is the focus of the film, Kazeem’s brutality is the crux and the driving force. The most scene-stealing of all is Olarotimi Fakunle, who gives a gruesome performance as Kazeem, the bloodthirsty antagonist.
Throughout the film, Bakre’s Obalola is a stark contrast to Fakunle’s Kazeem. While Kazeem is greedy, ruthless, and violent, Obalola maintains a sense of empathy and compassion for the people around him, just like his foster father Nino. Kazeem, the son of a butcher, is bestially similar to William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) in Gangs of New York. Kazeem and William “Bill the Butcher ” Cutting aspire to become the kingpin of their neighborhoods. Their brutal tactics are a result of their experiences with violence and poverty. Bakre’s performance as Obalola is his best so far. Obalola’s ambition to escape the hostility of his community is akin to that of Rocket (played by Alexandre Rodrigues) in City of God. Bakre’s performance here is a clever improvement upon the role he played in Brotherhood.
The screenplay was written by Jadesola Osiberu and Kay I. Jegede, and while it begins with a promising narrative, it falters in its second half. The story loses direction as it attempts to introduce new plot points that lack clear resolution. The first half of the film is strong and well-rounded with solid performances. The second struggles to find a foothold: The violence ramps up, and the plot thins. Although new characters are introduced, they are not given a clear-cut character arc. Nonetheless, the film is uplifted by clever dialogue and action sequences.
Gangs of Lagos is a powerful examination of the effect of poverty and violence on people and societies. The film’s complex characters give insight into the cruel realities of life in an impoverished society. The contrast between the characters—Kazeem and Nino, Teni and Oba, and Ify and Gifts—spotlights the difficult social issues that must be handled to build a just and equitable society. Though the film is not a masterpiece, it offers something new to Nollywood cinematic violence. It’s also a testament to the improving skill of Jadesola Osiberu as a filmmaker.
Michael Kolawole is a screenwriter, playwright, poet, and culture journalist from Nigeria.