I don’t think it is a big secret around here that a lot of my viewing choices for Movie Monday are based on whatever I happen to find on Netflix. So imagine my delight when I found Launcelot Oduwa Imasuen’s 2014 historical drama Invasion 1897, which is about the destruction of the independent African kingdom of Benin, just hiding out in the epics section.
A Nigerian movie about British colonialism seen from the other side? Sign me up. Even if Invasion 1897 turned out to be terrible, it would be interesting. And it was! Which was good news, because on a purely filmic level, it’s … not great.
So, OK. The film has a framing narrative about an art student (Charles Venn) who gets arrested trying to take some of the famous Benin Bronzes from a museum. This is a real-world issue — I mean, the legacy of a lot of artefacts in museums is one of a colonial relationship where the artefacts might not be what you’d call freely given. But the Benin Bronzes fall into the category of straight-up loot.
Anyway, during the highly unrealistic argument about the bronzes, we go into flashback mode and see the story of how the British decided to take control over Benin. Basically, resource-rich Benin has stuff the British want, like palm oil and rubber, leading to a trade treaty that the king of Benin, Ovonramwen (Mike Omoregbe) either understands differently or doesn’t intend to keep. When the trade deal is apparently broken, a rash British official leads an expedition into Benin; the expedition gets massacred, and the British, who had been looking for a pretext anyway, move in.
All of this is more or less told in sequence, although some of the complexities are smoothed out. Where it falls down is … well, the execution.
And, I mean, it’s a low-budget film and it looks like it. I’m not trying to say that an inexpensive film can’t be good. But the British flag on the wall in the shack that is apparently the Empire’s HQ is crudely hand-painted, and there is a scene where one of the British characters is wearing, no kidding, a T-shirt. Several of the British characters have American or South African accents, which did make me think about how often that’s probably the case with non-English-speakers in English-language movies. That Spanish-speaking character could be supposed to be Chilean, actually sound Mexican, and I would have no idea at all.
It’s not just production and casting, either. The dialogue is repetitive and … is stagey the word I’m looking for? Sometimes it’s very elaborate in a way that sounds slightly off to my ear; I don’t know if this is a genuine difference between norms in Nigerian English and British English or just a modern-screenwriter-trying-to-sound-old-timey thing. The performances are also wildly variable. Again, I think budget concerns are a factor here: I don’t think too many scenes in this film got lengthy rehearsals or second takes. That means that every scene is played in whatever the actor’s natural inclination is, whether that’s hyped bellowing (for one group of Benin nobles) or sleepy mumbling (for the guy playing Henry Galway). Most of the main characters are fine, but the supporting parts seem to be played by whoever they could round up.
Whoever they could round up got a certain amount of say in directorial decisions, too, it sems. Galway explains the whole rubber-tree plot to one of his subordinates while standing on a porch and tapping a piece of paper loudly with a stick, and the guy just keeps saying “OK” over and over, sometimes interrupting to do so. I’ve got to assume that was an acting choice on his part. A British officer says “these guys are something else!” at one point. That can’t have been in the script, can it?
And the battle scenes … I’m gonna say the battle scenes “could use some work.”
Also, there’s a bit where a god appears in a haze of blue light to tell Ovonramwen that he’s doomed. And at one point Ovonramwen just turns invisible, presumably as the result of a spell he cast on himself earlier. I … did not think that was meant to be taken literally.
I don’t know how much of this is just that I’m, for want of a better explanation, not Nigerian. Like, I know that what I think of as the structure of storytelling is merely the accepted structures of particular accepted genres. Maybe if I were more steeped in Nigeria’s dramatic traditions the disjointed plot would make more sense? Maybe the idea that the king of Benin had magical powers is a well-enough known trope that it wouldn’t require explanation for the intended audience? Could be! I got that with the constant naming of the chiefs, too — if I knew more about the history of the place and period, those names presumably would have meant more to me. So perhaps some of what made the film confusing is me applying slightly-off genre expectations to it.
It still wouldn’t explain why the British officers have anarchy-symbol patches on their uniforms, though. Or why the officer who hoists the flag then appears standing at the bottom of the flagpole still holding the flag. Or … the fake beards.
Anyway, despite the fact that this movie is a weird, disjointed, kind of crude spectacle, I thought it was interesting. I didn’t know much about the Benin expedition before this, and it inspired me to learn a bit more about it. It was also interesting to see the tale told by a filmmaker who wasn’t British — he doesn’t paint the British as pure villains, necessarily, but more importantly he doesn’t assume they were the most important characters in the whole thing. Even if it’s expressed primarily by shouty rambling, the conflict among the kingdom’s various chiefs and leaders over the Benin Massacre (that’s the bit where the British party was attacked) are portrayed in a more complex way than I would expect from your typical historical drama.
The point about Benin artefacts in British and other museums is made briefly but clearly. I don’t know what there is to say about it, really: the question of what to do with these artefacts is a thorny one in practice, but the rights and wrongs of it in principle are pretty clear.
I can’t decide whether Imasuen is making an intentional choice to portray Ovonramwen in an equivocal way. It might just be equivocal writing, or it might be that I’m genuinely supposed to be rooting for him the whole way. He doesn’t actually do a whole lot, and I sometimes can’t tell whether Omoregbe’s going for heroic resolve or misguided aggression in his performance. When he tones it down, as in the final scene, he’s pretty powerful, but it’s not consistent. There certainly seem to be some scenes where the message is that Benin is better than Britain because it’s more … patriarchal and authoritarian? Again, I don’t know if I’m misreading that, but it would be consistent with the patriotic glurge genre.
So yeah, it’s interesting, at least from my outsider’s perspective. It has a lot of ingenuity and ambition, and it’s genuinely affecting in its portrayal of the horrors of the Benin Expedition and the plight of Ovonramwen. And it talks about heritage repatriation, even if it presents the issue as It’s not good in any meaningful sense. But it’s also not just a knockoff of something else, and after umpty-gazillion of these Movie Mondays I can definitely appreciate that. It’s … the best Benin historical drama I’ve ever seen? Number one in a field of one, I guess.