Shanty Town is easily a crime thriller drama whose strengths are noticeable in what one might categorically refer to, in local parlance, as ‘packaging.’
By Adedamola Jones Adedayo
Permit me to digress a bit before delving into the nature of this Netflix series, Shanty Town. Has anyone noticed that we are witnessing an era of Nollywood in which compelling storytelling and dialogues are easily forfeited for cinematographic fastidiousness and casting? Or, perhaps, the problem, in some cases, is that the industry has overseen too many colonies of storylines in its past for discerning viewers not to be easily moved by any shabbily dressed stories, for instance Chief Daddy 2: Going for Broke and The Ghost and the Tout, of the New Nollywood era.
Sometimes, it is not that the industry falls pitiably short of thought-provoking and mind-shattering content — maybe a fairly inconsistent crusade, but the overwhelming reality is that filmmaking from other climes has raised the bar so high that our domestic efforts, trudging from behind, can only keep trying to catch up. However, this is not to say that these ambitious efforts do not deserve some patting on the back of the production team.
Shanty Town is easily a crime thriller drama whose strengths are noticeable in what one might categorically refer to, in local parlance, as ‘packaging.’ From actors and actresses to casting choices, cinematography, overbearing violence and randomness of nudity, the series worms its way into the hearts of its audience. It tries to be Hollywood-like, for instance in the final episode when a full-scale fight breaks out between the men of Chief Fernandez (Richard Mofe Damijo) and Dame Dabota (Shaffy Bello) — and also in the controversial body double scene of Shalewa (Nancy Isime), plus many other semi-nude scenes, but the fighting becomes redundant at some point. The filmmakers must have thought beforehand, but what is a good crime drama without some real action? Thanks to them, we are treated to a fleetingly West-romancing variety of Nollywood action show, just as in the case of Merry Men 1 & 2 where the men are seen delivering self-defence stunts against whatever villain showed up, but the wage of this transformation is a halfhearted storyline. Whatever the characteristics of a good film might be, which includes the use of charming, popular faces and alluring motion pictures, some remarkable plot must be prioritised, set at the nucleus of the whole production. Shanty Town fails this hypothetical description.
In Shanty Town, the underworld of the eponymous locale revolves around Scar (Chidi Mokeme), a pimp and drug-dealing criminal who acts as a cover for the dangerous politician, Chief Fernandez. The public think of the Chief as a philanthropist and amiable figure, but this is only a façade for his dastardly acts against humanity. While Chief Fernandez hopes to fulfil his ambition of being Lagos state governor, he usually tries to get Scar, his stooge, to further bend to his whims through the use of coercion. Despite his allegiance to Chief Fernandez, Scar is not permitted to air any form of discontent to the iron-hand-wielding Chief. So, it is only a matter of time before the semi-hulking jagged-faced villain begins to contemplate a betrayal of his master, and liaises with Dame Dabota (Chief’s rival for the gubernatorial post) to kidnap Femi Fernandez, son to the Chief, and steal his boss’s power-packed ring. The essence of these moves is to try and lure the Chief into the dragnet of the matriarch. The plan looks set to succeed at first, and then set to fail the next moment after it is thwarted by the Chief’s diabolical foresight and an outbreak of violence between the men on both sides of the key political duelists. The interruption of law enforcement agents is timely to save Femi Fernandez (Peter P-Square) and Shalewa from being possibly hurt.
But the story isn’t as horizontally plotted as the previous paragraph suggests. The first complex point lies in the politics with which Shanty Town is run and the girls are objectified. Every other girl thinks that freedom from Shanty Town is absolute freedom from street life and prostitution. Only Scar’s inner circle knows the truth, that freedom is only as mythical as an Orwellian reality.
Shanty Town denies us the gruelling pleasure of suspense. The film could have been delayed a little longer before revealing to us the paradox of Jackie’s quest for freedom, that the young lady ends up as Scar’s ill-fated mincemeat. A better time for the revelation would have been through a flashback scene carefully slid in the confessional conversation between Inem (Nse Ikpe-Etim) and undercover agent Amanda (Ini Edo).
As a star-studded film, Shanty Town capitalises on the individual brilliance of its veterans. This gives the film a slight edge. Whereas the plot slumbers and the conversations lack weight, these characters with enormous screen precedents lead the way to the first glory that almost certainly dawns on the film. Playing the lead role of Scar, Chidi Mokeme makes a memorable “comeback” in Nollywood. Before pre-release talks about the film became rampant, hardly anyone could have predicted that the filmmakers would fancy inspiring a chunk of Nollywood nostalgia through the behest of an unlikely villain. When the former Gulder Ultimate Search host turned 50 on the 17th of March, 2022, people had reacted to what they felt was a surreal stride because he looked younger in age. It seemed, for an unforeseeable umpteenth time, he had been cast in some spotlight — but any argument in defence of Mokeme’s abrupt resurrection is probably weak and dispensable when one considers that he appeared in a Kayode Kasum-directed movie, The Therapist, in 2021.
Zubby Michael’s role as Colorado in the film is another point of excellence. The other two in-vogue Nollywood stars that readily come to mind as substitutes for the right-hand man role, capable of piquing similar enthusiasm, are Kelvin Ikeduba and Samuel Perry (Broda Shaggi). However, the choice of Zubby could be interpreted as a superb casting negotiation if one considers the supposition that Kelvin Ikeduba might just have been too overzealous in delivery, encroaching on the preeminence of Scar, and that a Brodda Shaggi would have diluted the stern atmosphere of the project with his rather habitual comical aura.
Nancy Isime, Mercy Eke, Nse Ikpe-Etim, Ini Edo, Richard Mofe-Damijo, Uche Jombo and other characters shine through their performances, too. For instance, Nse Ikpe-Etim’s partly bossy and daring role as Inem has a precedence in the role of Jumoke Randle which she played in Kemi Adetiba’s King of Boys: The Return of the King. On that occasion, she fronts for her husband, just as we find her doing for Scar and the retinue of girls in Shanty Town.
One dubious way to enjoy Shanty Town is to pick through its subtle cues and make a big metaphorical deal of it. There’s been quite some shade thrown at Lagos politics in recent Nollywood times. In KOB, two political bigwigs, Eniola Salami and Tunde Randle, with skeletons in their closets, vie for the gubernatorial trophy of the state. A similar scenario applies to Shanty Town as both governorship aspirants are answerable for their moral depravities. Now, this leads us to two open-ended questions: Is politics in Lagos really as politically handicapped as depicted in this parallelism? Do the godfather/godmother images in these series represent any real-life figures?
Adedamola Jones Adedayo is a teacher, writer, and literary arts & popular culture critic. He is particularly interested in African writings, films and music. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Facebook, he is Adedamola Jones Adedayo, on Instagram @adedamolajonesadedayo, and on Twitter @AdedamolaAdeda4.