Many of my childhood memories involve sitting in front of the television in my school uniform, the air conditioning turned up to combat the sticky heat of a Nigerian afternoon. I would get as close as I could, squinting, but it wasn’t children’s entertainment on the screen. I was watching Nollywood movies — or, rather, I was watching my mother watch them.
Nollywood is Nigeria’s version of Hollywood, kind of like India’s Bollywood. It’s one of the largest film industries in the world — an ever-expanding entertainment empire built on the early success of low-budget, high-volume, straight-to-video hits — and yet, most of the people I’ve met in America have never heard of it before. In a way, it’s something that can only be truly understood if you’re African, like how it’s impossible to say my last name right without a Nigerian accent.
Many Nollywood films can’t even be comprehended if the viewer doesn’t understand Nigerian Pidgin English. My nanny marveled at my ability to speak Pidgin as a firmly upper-middle-class girl who borrowed a whole new dialect from the movies I watched on TV; otherwise, my only other interaction with people who spoke Pidgin was when I’d roll down my car window in Lagos to buy Mentos from hawkers.
Today, Nollywood films span every genre, but the ones I grew up with are more like feature-length soap operas — with low budgets and high morals — telling cautionary tales and doling out punishments to those who deviate from the straight path. Most of all, at its core, Nollywood is about a hyperlocal sense of place: stories that are funny and sad and relatable and unabashedly Nigerian. For example, everyone knows to arrive at the airport at least five hours early because Lagos traffic is just that unpredictable. And everyone knows that glorious sound of the electricity suddenly coming on — “NEPA brought light,” we say.
As Nigerian filmmaker Femi Odugbemitold the writer Emily Witt for her 2017book, “Nollywood: The Making of a Film Empire,” Nollywood’s history can be traced back to the 1980s when merchants selling videotapes began commissioning soap-opera producers to make stories to actually put on them. “It moved the tapes. What they didn’t sell, they wiped, and made another film,” Odugbemi said, noting that the stories were especially popular with domestic workers who watched them when their bosses weren’t home.
“It grew on its own steam,” he said. “Its originators were Nigerians, its performers were Nigerians, its audience[s] were Nigerians. Why? They all shared a certain one common thing: the Nigerian experience.”
Still, these movies must make some sense to non-Nigerians, because they can be found across Africa.
For a long time, the only people who seemed to be aware of Nollywood’s existence outside of Africa were African immigrants, but that has been changing. Amazon Prime Video recently struck a three-picture deal with Nigerian production house Nemsia Films. Nollywood has even made its way to the stage with the play “Nollywood Dreams” (written by Ghanaian American playwright Jocelyn Bioh) about a woman who wishes to become a Nollywood star. Genevieve Nnaji, who actually is a big Nollywood star, also directed 2018′s “Lionheart” — about a woman who takes charge of her family business — which is billed as Netflix’s first Nigerian original film. Plenty of other Nollywood movies are browsable on Netflix.
As a child, I only knew Nollywood for making the movies my mother loved. She would come back from a long day of working at the bank, peel off her business armor, and turn on the Africa Magic channel. Dashing between massive vats of okra soup in the kitchen and the TV in the living room, she would stand with stirring spoon in hand, rapt. Frequently, the air that escaped would be spicy enough (or “pepperish,” as we called it) that it made my mouth and eyes water.
The stories onscreen seemed so incongruous with how she presented herself: As Ebehijie Momoh to the outside world, my mother was sleek and put together, high-powered and always on her shiny Blackberry (it was 2012). At home, she was Mommy, and the Nollywood movies she liked were loud and boisterous, low quality and starring the same actors every time. The gap between her and them drew me to the screen even when she wasn’t home.
As a teenager, I moved on to watching movies like “Moonrise Kingdom” and “The Social Network.” I guess I thought these were “real” movies, movies I’d discuss when I went to America — so unlike the ones my mother watched, which felt like relics of a country I’d prepared my whole life to leave behind.
Today, as a film student at Boston University, I’m still obsessed with movies. I sit in classrooms, learning about Black auteurs or Lithuanian experimental cinema. Outside of class, watching films like “The Death of Stalin” or Cronenberg’s “Crash” is my idea of a great time. I’ve left Nollywood films back in Nigeria, but recently they’ve been on my mind.
My experience of Nollywood films are much like my experience of Nigerian culture in general — the connection I feel is tenuous at best. As time passes and my future looms closer, the reality that it will not include Nigeria presses on me.
I thought maybe if I could learn more about Nigeria’s movie culture, I could understand more about my culture overall. So, I decided to ask my parents about Nollywood over a shaky WhatsApp video call.
My father recalled early Nollywood films, which centered on traditional stories, often set in a village or rural town. “They were not sophisticated,” he said, noting the poor sound and picture quality. “But the storyline was relatable. You could understand them. We used to laugh that they used to talk about witches and juju.”
Still, the movies and shows they grew up with aren’t what US streaming services are picking up, and even in Nigeria some of the older releases seem to be fading into the background. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, my parents say.
My mother observed how newer films have been taking on “taboo” topics in Nigeria “to send the right kind of messages,” adding she’d noticed more storylines about women. “Addressing abuse, whether physical, or emotional abuse — there have been a lot of such movies, where they are addressing societal ills, which is great because you would only see that in the foreign movies before. But we are bringing it home.”
I decided to revisit Nigerian movies, searching on YouTube for titles I recognized. I landed on 1999′s “Chain Reaction,” which follows Eucharia (Liz Benson) the wife of the eldest of three brothers, who is deeply jealous of Victoria (Onyeka Onwenu), a younger wife of one of the brothers. Eucharia sets out to ruin the rest of the family’s lives, but her evil plans backfire.
The premise doesn’t prepare one for the actual film, which devolves into a parable about the dangers of greed and non-Christian gods — and really needs to be seen to be believed.
To outsiders, “Chain Reaction” may be one of the odder movies they ever see, but to me it evokes a feeling of deep satisfaction — there’s nothing quite like it, and yet it follows a formula specific to many Nollywood movies. We know that the evil wife will get her just desserts; we know the kind wife will be rewarded (monetarily and emotionally). The bad guys always get punished, and the punishment is thorough and biblical. And there’s beauty in that.
Watching “Chain Reaction” didn’t just fill me with nostalgia; it gave me a new appreciation for Nigeria and its singularity. Maybe when I’m home for Christmas and my mother settles on the couch to turn on Africa Magic after a long day, I won’t just glance at the screen on my way to the kitchen. Maybe I’ll sit down beside her and watch, too.
Danielle Momoh was a Globe intern in 2022.