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Why We Need New Names in Nollywood

Why We Need New Names in Nollywood

Why We Need New Names in Nollywood | Afrocritik

Whatever the scale of the imagination, conventional wisdom used to be this: that a name said something about a character.

By Victory Hayzard Solum

It used to be a belief widely held that to know a spirit by name was to conjure it and to cause it to action. It should be apparent then that nowhere else in all the arts can naming be as consequential as in fiction, driven as it is by action. And in what better class of fiction could this be made more evident than in the near-magical medium of the cinematic arts?

An exemplification of this sentiment appears in the 2017 biographical fantasy movie, The Man Who Invented Christmas, where the young author, Charles Dickens, struggles with fashioning a suitable name for the character he is creating. It is not until this is achieved that the character, Ebenezer Scrooge, really comes alive, appearing physically in the room with Dickens.

The Socratic dialogue, “Cratylus”, as produced by Plato, features Socrates in discourse over the relationship between names and objects. Is determinism the guiding factor behind names, or are things arbitrarily named? Socrates is made to ask thusly, “Well, don’t you think he who gave to the ancestors of the other gods the names “Rhea” and “Cronus” had the same thought as Heracleitus? Do you think he gave both of them the names of streams merely by chance?”

Aki and Pawpaw are perhaps the most famous character names to come out of Nollywood. First appearing in the 2003 comedy, Aki na Ukwa, — literally translated as “Palm Kernel and Pawpaw” — the duo inflict such pain and chaos upon their father and community in a way that could only have been inspired by the odd gastronomic combination for which they were named. So iconic was their portrayal that the actors, Chinedu Ikedieze and Osita Iheme, had several more roles that were simply rehashes of the original. Here is another slightly gastronomically hinged name: Ukwa, coming off the 2001 comedy, Ukwa. Named for the loud excitability of the eponymous roasted seeds (the African breadfruit), Ukwa’chinaka is a rambunctious fellow whose exuberance leads to unrelenting misadventure. And yet, nowhere else than amongst the criminals of Nollywood filmmaking did this sort of naming ring truest, with choices like “Stone” and “Scorpion” ranking high.

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Once, truly, in line with Cratylitic thought, authors acknowledged the power in naming their characters, attending to it with the utmost care and responsibility. The history of cinema is replete with numerous examples of such names. Some of them long, some of them short. Some tonal and humorous, some stark like white barren fields of ice. But all written with a certain “fit-for-purpose-ness”.

What do you call a bloodthirsty killer with an otherworldly resolve let loose upon the hapless everyman? Short of tagging him any T-model of the Terminator series, you call him Anton Chigurh. What do you call the holidaying police officer who, faced with a gang of seemingly sophisticated terrorists, would rather much call out to higher authorities, but is only pressed into action when his loved ones come under threat? You call him John McClane. The James Bond movies gave us golden figures like Le Chiffre, Blofeld, Scaramanga, Goldfinger, and Moneypenny, and at the height of their most racy imaginings cooked up wonders like Octopussy, Holly Goodhead, and Pussy Galore.

Whatever the scale of the imagination, conventional wisdom used to be this: that a name said something about a character. Sometimes, as with the Corleones of The Godfather, it told you more about their ethnicity. Other times, as with the Roses and Nancies and Maries of world cinema, the information offered was epochal, like strands of DNA coding trapped in amber. But always, there was a message being traded on, at least, subconsciously. Name a character Jezebel, and one expects if not a fatal femme, then a lady who turns things on their heads, going up against the strictures of convention. Otherwise, one concludes she has been rather unfortunate in the matter of her forebears. What this entailed in general was that some forethought was brought to bear in the naming of characters, as it was tied up intrinsically with characterisation. There was thus a direct relationship between distinctive characterisation and naming, as opposed to an arbitrary one.

And yet, it could be asked, what precisely grants a name like Rambo its remarkableness? Is it something to do with the fact that until a character appeared so named in the 1982 action thriller, First Blood, we had barely heard something of the kind? Perhaps, it lies in its brevity. Two syllables. Strong and succinctly put; done and dusted with. Or perhaps there is nothing special about the name. Perhaps a character written as appears in the aforementioned thriller would have been iconic anyhow, no matter the appellation fastened upon him. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so said the Bard once.

There were ways of ensuring the audience familiarised themselves with the character names. Sometimes, the film titles were eponymous, with the protagonist’s name appearing therein, as with the aforementioned Nollywood examples. Other examples would include classics like the 1999 Fred Amata movie, Ijele, and Simi Opeodu’s Vuga of 2000.

Other times, the names were mentioned so often in the dialogue that they stuck. The 1999 Kenneth Nnebue movie, End Time, featured a diabolical clergyman with powers rooted in the occult. But just in case one was in doubt as to what his name was, “Pastor Weaver” are the very first words uttered in the film. Now, of course, in Nigeria’s cultural climes, perhaps a Western-themed name like Pastor Weaver is always going to stand out regardless of how many times it is or isn’t mentioned. Well, how then does one account for otherwise ordinary names like Ebube and Nwoke from Issakaba, and Susanna from Ukwa becoming part of Nigerian pop culture on a cinematic basis

There is no gainsaying the human desire to name and label things. It eases our ability to store and retrieve information from the brain, as opposed to the head-scratching, finger-snapping moments of forgetful embarrassment. Create a character remarkable enough to be remembered but fail to give them a suitable name, and a substitute is immediately found for them. Long before his name became widely used, the Nollywood actor, Hanks Anuku, was more popularly known as Senator, off the title of the 2003 Teco Benson thriller, The Senator.

The thrust of all which has come before is this; a memorable name is most probably evidence that some level of attention and deliberateness has gone into the creation of a character. Otherwise, as with the otherwise ordinary names, Jack and Rose, the film has struck so strongly a chord with the audience that its characters have been filed away for quick retrieval in the discourses that must inevitably follow. So it was that the old Nollywood movies had names like Ezebunafo, Mmiri Nwa Mama, and Ahanna peppered throughout. If this is taken to be the case, however, then one must wonder how after over a decade of subsistence, New Nollywood had until quite recently, contributed quite few names into the annals of pop culture. Can this be held as symptomatic of the state of our writing?

Perhaps the first name of reckon here would be Inspector Danladi Waziri, the protagonist of Kunle Afolayan‘s 2014 mystery thriller, October 1. He is a police officer who, on the instructions of the colonial authorities, must investigate a range of serial murders. Favouring rigorous police procedure and doggedness, the ageing investigator is a stand-out character from among his fellow and more superstitious colleagues. A northerner from out of town, his name which stands as a contrast to those of the Westerners around him becomes something of note. It didn’t hurt also to have that final scene where he forcefully insists on being called his name in full, as opposed to the condescending Danny Boy he had been christened with by the white man.

In 2016, The Wedding Party came rushing out of the stables of EbonyLife Studios, FilmOne, and Inkblot Productions, bringing along with it, the duo, TinTin and BamBam. A middle-aged couple comical and very much in love, TinTin and BamBam no doubt contributed to the film’s popularity that saw people rushing to the cinemas in droves, ensuring box office success and a true pop-culture moment. An added effect would be that the Onwukas, their in-laws, would also attain that same popularity by thematic contrast.

Two years later, in 2018, Kemi Adetiba, the director and co-writer of The Wedding Party, dished out yet another feast, King of Boys, cementing her status as a force to be reckoned with in the industry. From Alhaja Eniola Salami to Makanaki to Odogwu Malay, King of Boys rolled out a host of much beloved characters in its nearly three-hour runtime that thrilled and stimulated Nollywood audiences to no end. So popular were the characters, that its sequel saw the ill-advised resurrection of perhaps its most iconic character, in a move not dissimilar to what was obtained with the pop-culture icons Sherlock Holmes and Jon Snow. But for the Alhaja whose iconic status was backed purely by her strong characterisation and forceful performance, the others went by creative nicknames of the sort one finds on the streets, with enunciation and abbreviation heightening their appeal, even as they stunned with their onscreen endeavours.

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Why We Need New Names in Nollywood | Afrocritik
The characters, TinTin and BamBam from the film, The Wedding Party

Whether this is in fact a testament to his popularity or my own memory, Richard Williams made his entry into Nigerian pop culture with his appearance in the 2019 movie, Living in Bondage: Breaking Free. Mephistophelian in bearing, he would go on to appear in more Play Network movies like Rattlesnake: the Ahanna Story, and Nneka the Pretty Serpent, bringing with him his devilish poise and seductive deals. Amongst a host of characters with more indigenous names like Ahanna, Richard Williams set this character apart as alien, imbuing with the supposed classiness of all things Western, aided on by deceptive familiarity in a potent and heady cocktail of ideas.

Suffice it to say that since the arguable inclusion of Richard Williams, Nollywood has had far fewer names thrust into the public spaces by which the body of works might be identified. Perhaps occupying the same sphere of arguable inclusion would be contending characters from movies like Chief Daddy, New Money, and Quam’s Money, as well as Omo Ghetto: the Saga. But recalling their names might be more credit to the credit of your memory than evidence of their standing in public acclaim.

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Ramsey Nouah as Richard Williams

Perhaps one of the strongest contenders would have been the mononymous Eric, the lead character of the 2023 crime drama, The Trade. But for a few mishaps, chief amongst which was low publicity, the writing of this character and general production of the movie had the potential of granting him quick inclusion among the host of iconic Nollywood figures. This, however, is not the case.

Lover-boy and would-be musician, Panama, casts an attractive shadow from the 2023 crime thriller, Gangs of Lagos. He is imbued with so much colour, charm, and affability, that his might be one of the most successful fridging ever pulled off in Nollywood history. The eulogy delivered by his mother might be one of the most haunting Nollywood monologues in recent history. This combination with his distinct soft-toned nickname, Panama, makes him a character not to be forgotten anytime soon. There might be many Ifeanyis out there. But there is only one Panama in Nigerian cinema.

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Chike as Panama

Was a family unit ever more dysfunctional, strangely relatable, and unforgettable as Jedidiah and her five sons, Emeka, Adamu, Pere, Shina, and Ejiro? One only needs to add the suffix of their surname, Judah, to see eyes and faces light up in fond and bittersweet remembrance of their all-so-recent misadventures in the 2023 movie, A Tribe Called Judah, that saw it roaring to a glorious finish with unparalleled box office success. Written each with their own distinct characterisation and highlighted further by the cultural disparity of their names, this tribe makes the most welcome entry into Nollywood pop culture, with the chirpy, annoying, and childishly cute Testimony following swiftly on the heels of her lover, Ejiro. It may be noted, however, that some stereotypes may have attended the names too. The Igbo Emeka is straightforward and enterprising, the Hausa Adamu, a security man, and the Yoruba Shina is a loudmouthed street thug. Herein lies the downsides of names dictating the destinies of characters, as sometimes, they might be so informed by less noble prejudices and biases.

Just as recently, with the release of Kayode Kasum’s Afamefuna: An Nwa Boi Story, Nollywood got a new inclusion of names like Afamefuna, Odogwu, and Paulo. Here, perhaps for the first time in a long time, we see an attempt to tie the names of these characters intrinsically with their personalities and destinies. Here, Odogwu, used more popularly as an honorific for a man of means, becomes the proper name of the beloved and generous master of many. Afamefuna’s name serves to engender more irony and anxiety when his son’s paternity comes into question. And what could be more fitting of the unserious and perpetually smiling market boy than Paulo?

Many factors go into the naming of a character. Sometimes, the desire that it be unremarkable might be a motivator, if one were creating say, the average Tom, Dick, and Harry. There is something about deliberateness, however, by which the unremarkable might be elevated to immortality. This is one of the very essences of Art.

I started this article with the idea that New Nollywood has contributed too few names to the pop-culture catalogue. I am beginning to be convinced otherwise, that perhaps it was I who had underestimated the number given the time. But then, perhaps, my mind has only been assailed by the impact of active recall. Short of engendering an era of cartoonishly obvious names as obtained in the James Bond movies and its numerous parodies, it has been my intent here to call attention to the importance of distinct characterisation, which sometimes leads to the effect of memorable names. For some, this may be dispensable as mere artifice. I am inclined, however, to believe the same as Henry James Thoreau: “There is all the poetry in the world in a name. It is a poem which the mass of men hear and read. What is poetry in the common sense, but a hearing of such jingling names? I want nothing better than a good word. The name of a thing may easily be more than the thing itself to me.”

Victory Hayzard Solum is a freelance writer with an irrepressible passion for the cinematic arts. Here he explores the sights, sounds, and magic of the shadow-making medium and their enrichment of the human experience. A longstanding ghostwriter, he may have authored the last bestselling novel you read.

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