For all its material and all its effort, A Sunday Affair’s portrayal of female friendship ends up being feeble, stunted by the writers’ decision to centre men in its women’s relationship…
By Vivian Nneka Nwajiaku
Note: This essay contains spoilers for the films it references
It’s very early in 2016. Mo Abudu’s EbonyLife Films has recently premiered its debut film, the Biyi Bandele-directed Fifty, a 2015 romantic comedy about four career-driven women who have to take stock of their lives as they approach or clock the age of fifty. I’m still a student at the University of Lagos, where I live in a female-only hostel. Netflix hasn’t come to Nigeria, and Abudu isn’t signing all those streaming deals yet. But there is a lot of noise about Fifty, and because the only options are cinemas and pirated copies, the film is going from phone to phone, courtesy of Xender.
Starring Ireti Doyle, Nse Ikpe-Etim, Omoni Oboli, and Dakore Akande, Fifty feels revolutionary as far as Nollywood is concerned. To have middle-aged career women dealing with unsavoury relationships on a Nollywood screen without the film itself passing judgment on them is a big deal. My roommate shows me a few clips. She’s intrigued. I’m impressed. I don’t watch the full film, though. I’m still sceptical about Nollywood, you see. It will take me years before I will finally see Fifty, after Netflix launches in Nigeria and strikes a deal with EbonyLife that migrates the latter’s films and shows to the former’s streaming service.
Fast-forward to 2023. EbonyLife’s relationship with Netflix has birthed several productions; some, like Blood Sisters, are hits , while others, like Chief Daddy 2, are misses. Their first outing for 2023, A Sunday Affair, might be more miss than hit, but it’s just as scandalous as Fifty, Blood Sisters, and Chief Daddy. Plus, it shares something in common with them: the theme (or sub-theme) of female friendship. No reminder is needed for Blood Sisters, where Nancy Isime, and Ini Dima-Okojie star as friends-turned-sisters who literally kill for each other. But you probably don’t remember that Chief Daddy 2 subplot where sisters-turned-best-friends, played by Funke Akindele and Kate Henshaw, get into a fight over a man created by the film solely for the purpose of driving a wedge between them.
Directed by Walter “Waltbanger” Taylaur (Catch.er, Gbomo Gbomo Express), A Sunday Affair revisits the trope of best friends falling in love with the same man, but with a different approach. EbonyLife enlists Ikpe-Etim and Akande once again, and this time, they star as Uche and Toyin, two lifelong best friends who fall in love with a supposedly complicated man but still have to be there for each other through their heartbreaks and tragedies. As is the case with many best friends, Uche and Toyin are two very different people. Uche is the carefree one with very few inhibitions. She’s uninterested in settling down to have a family even as her biological sister gets married. She has a preference for married men, and she’s bankrolled by a possessive sugar daddy who funds both her non-lucrative art gallery and her lavish lifestyle. On the other hand, Toyin is the conservative and self-funded woman who wants a family but has given up on finding a good man and is looking to conceive a child through artificial insemination.
When they both meet Sunday, a married man, at a wedding, their reactions reflect their personalities. Uche gets away with him, and they have sex without caring that his wife and daughter are just somewhere around the corner. Toyin, on her part, treats him with distrust and only warms up to him after she learns that he and his wife are getting a divorce. In a very short time, the friends are dating the same man. And while said man is aware of their close friendship, neither of them has a clue that they’re being two-timed. However, when they do find out, there’s not so much as a word of anger directed at each other.
Female friendships get a bad rap. Every other market day, there’s talk about women hating women and female friendships being riddled with jealousy and unhealthy competition. Of course, non toxic relationships exist. As a teenager in a girls’ only school, I experienced first-hand the perils of a toxic friendship with girls. I’ve tasted the betrayal and suffered the heartbreak of getting into the wrong friend group. But as unforgettable as it is, that experience pales in comparison with the highs of the many other female friendships I’ve been involved in and still am.
Unfortunately, for decades, the media — both local and foreign — have focused too much on toxic and one-dimensional relationships, giving very little space to the portrayal of genuine sisterhood in all its complexity. This is why every film or show that centres female friendship, including the subject of this essay, gets lauded for a portrayal that should already be a norm, and not an exception.
Now, it might not be the heartfelt romantic drama that it wants to be, but A Sunday Affair has its merits as a treatise on female friendship. What we witness when Uche and Toyin discover the truth about Sunday is stereotype-shattering. The mere fact that this film does not pit these two women against each other over a man is a miracle, by Nollywood’s standards. From films that confidently rely on stereotypes, like Tanwa Savage, to films that set out to break them, like Finding Hubby, female characters who find themselves in a love triangle almost never get past said triangle without a brutal exchange. Even Fifty doesn’t escape (rightfully) bitter quarrels triggered by its women’s entanglements with men. But in A Sunday Affair, when Toyin tells Uche that the mystery man she’s dating is Sunday, whom Uche has also been seeing in secret, we watch Uche melt in hurt and pain while also sharing in her best friend’s happiness. And when Toyin walks in on Sunday cheating on her with Uche, she opts to sympathise with her friend instead and chooses not to interfere.
Yes, it can be argued that it’s a bad kind of friendship when you have to lie to your best friend about her cheating boyfriend. But it has to be remembered that for every time the question arises as to whether a person should tell the truth when they find out that their friend’s partner is cheating, there’s never a definite answer by the end of the discussion. If you’ve seen Fifty, you will very likely recall that showdown between Lizzy (played by Doyle) and Maria (played by Oboli) after Lizzy discovers that Maria has been sleeping with Tola’s (Akande) husband and fails to keep the secret to herself. When Maria confronts her, Lizzy’s response is that Maria should take responsibility for her actions. And when Maria tells Lizzy to stay out of her business, Lizzy replies, “I am your friend, you fool, I can’t stay out of your business.”
With impeccable delivery by Doyle, that line is, perhaps, one of the most poignant lines on friendship that New Nollywood Cinema has delivered. But, you see, A Sunday Affair’s Uche and Toyin have found themselves in a situation that seems to call for less honesty and more support. Toyin has just been diagnosed with stage 3 cancer (which, to be honest, is so off the cuff and so underexplored that it can only have been included in the film as sympathy-bait). And soon after, she also gets pregnant. Uche doesn’t want to disrupt the little happiness her friend has, so she swallows the truth. It’s a far cry from the route Fifty takes. Still, the two divergent options are a testament to how complex female friendships can be. How complicated they are.
And yet, for all its material and all its effort, A Sunday Affair’s portrayal of female friendship ends up being feeble, stunted by the writers’ decision to centre men in its women’s relationship. I have written in the past about the need for Nollywood to learn not to centre men in women’s stories as if a woman’s story is incomplete until a man shares the spotlight. This is yet another example of this storytelling problem. It barely even passes the Bechdel test which requires a film to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man. Now, it might not originally be a Nigerian concept, but it is a very useful yardstick for determining how our films portray women, lest we risk having a film industry that sees women only as they relate to men.
A Sunday Affair easily scales through the first two hurdles, with its two leading women who talk to each other a lot. As for talking about something other than a man, the clue is in the film’s title. There’s so much that these women can talk about. They can talk about the pressure Uche seems to be facing from her mother who wants grandchildren. They can talk about Toyin’s IUI (intrauterine insemination) journey. They can talk about their jobs. They can even go down memory lane and laugh about stories from their past over a glass of wine. Instead, they talk about Sunday and Sam and more Sunday and even more Sunday. For lifelong friends, it’s a little head-scratching that Uche and Toyin (including their teenage selves) struggle to have conversations that are neither about nor involve a man. Even when Toyin reveals to Uche that she has cancer, she immediately makes it about Sunday again and gives a little speech about how he’s going to help her get through it.
Granted, the fact that the film A Sunday Affair is a romantic drama means that there will be a lot of talk about men. But it’s not just talk. It’s other things, too. Like how we know everything about Sunday’s family and his job, but nothing about Toyin’s family or what exactly it is she does for a living. How everything we know about Uche’s art gallery is in relation to the man funding it and the other man that she’s trying to migrate to. Or how we at least get “cultural differences” as an explanation for Sunday’s divorce, but no knowledge of what triggered Toyin’s cynicism about love. There’s also the logic-bending that this film engages in to cater to Sunday’s existence. It’s strange that it is Sunday, not Uche, who knows to find a grieving Toyin on the same pier that has always been Uche and Toyin’s shared spot. Or that the “sensible” Toyin, initially so tired of men that she had become content with being a single mother, fails to see the problem in spending her last days with a quarter-to-divorced man who ghosts her, cheats on her with her best friend, and then stays with her out of sympathy.
This is not a film review in the critical sense of the word, so I’ll go ahead and rewrite the second half of A Sunday Affair in furtherance of the film’s “female friendship” goal. Since the film is clearly not that interested in Toyin’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, but cares so much about her giving birth, Toyin doesn’t have to get cancer at all. The pregnancy is enough. And if the writers so badly want to kill off Toyin’s character, even the pregnancy can get the job done. After the friends discover that they’ve been two-timed by Sunday, they find solace in each other. Then, Uche sees Toyin through her difficult pregnancy, and when Toyin dies, Uche raises the child as hers. Notice how Sunday is no longer in the equation? Because what’s the point you’re making when a man with an obvious history of cheating and who is still in the process of divorcing his wife now goes ahead to string two best friends along and ends up having both of them for literally the rest of each of the women’s lives?
In its obsession with Sunday, A Sunday Affair does a great disservice to its supposedly strong female leads and its noble cause of championing female friendship. Or maybe there was never a noble cause. Maybe the only real intention was to serve a scandalous drama on Valentine’s Day, and, to the filmmakers, a love triangle involving best friends just seemed like the best way to go about it.
(A Sunday Affair is streaming on Netflix here.)
Vivian Nneka Nwajiaku, a film critic, writer and lawyer, currently writes from Lagos. Connect with her on Twitter @Nneka_Viv and Instagram @_vivian.nneka.