“Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman,” is a classic culture clash melodrama, one of the most celebrated works (a play) by Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka.
It comes to the screen with all of its rhetorical power and a lot of its theatricality intact, thanks to Nigerian filmmaker Biyi Bandele. It’s a pointed and poignant if somewhat static adaptation set in the last years of British colonial rule in Western Africa, placing ancient tribal customs in conflict with British mores and notions of “civilization.”
Actor and sometime director Odunlade Adekola has the title role, the latest in a long line of men with his name, Elesin Oba,” a sub-chieftain to his king, his “horseman” and ceremonial guard and aide in life. But when we meet him, laughing, reveling in hedonistic excess, he is facing his death.
His king died 30 days before, and by custom, his “horseman” commits ritual suicide on the thirtieth day, the day of the ruler’s burial, so the horseman can lead him into the afterlife.
It doesn’t matter that it’s 1943 and the rest of the world is at war, that a British prince meant to be the abdicated Edward VIII is scheduled to visit. Elesin is “dancing on the narrow path of my forefathers, on a journey to visit my master.” Judging from the women, food and song, he’s fine with it.
But two events will disrupt this “last breath I breathe.”
First, he spies a winsome virgin dancing with her bridesmaids, readying for her wedding. He must have her, someone to ensure that he enjoys “my last moments on Earth.” And even in a patriarchy, he has to win “Mother” Iyaloja’s approval. She is queen of the marketplace, “mother to us all,” and it turns out, mother to the groom, which Elesin doesn’t realize.
She (Shaffy Bello) listens to Elesin’s pleas to “leave my seed behind” and decides she will “let him have his last wish.”
Meanwhile, at the British Residency, the resident (Langley Kirkwood) and his wife (Jenny Stead) are amusing themselves with their procured costumes for the night’s masquerade reception for the prince. The local Muslim policeman (Jide Kosoko) is appalled and alarmed. They are wearing “costumes of the dead,” ceremonial tribal suits that are part of the very rituals about to take place across town.
His superstitions are dismissed as “mumbo jumbo.” But word of a man about to perform a “ritual killing,” even if it’s his, sets the administrative wheels in motion.
“Will of the ancestors” be damned. Arrest that man!
Elesin’s son, sent to London to study medicine, has returned upon hearing of the tribal king’s death. He (Deyemi Okanlawon) may be dressed in a Saville Row suit, but that’s no predictor of how he will respond to his father, the ritual or the British who “dismiss” that which “you do not understand.”
Bandele, who died shortly after finishing this film, preserves the story’s pageantry and the sort of musical theater reality and unreality of it all. The characters are archetypes and information and moral debates are presented in speeches which the various Nigerians (in subtitled Yoruba, or dubbed into English) state their case and argue with their oppressors, men and women so “civilized” that “the whole world” has fallen into war on their watch.
Adekola, Bello and Okanlawon give fine performances passionately articulating the cost these tea-drinkers have exacted upon their people, with Adekola shifting from defiance to desperation in a flash.
It’s a bit stagebound and somewhat heavy-handed at times. But “Elesin Oba” wins us over with that theatricality and the poignancy of its message.
The drama, with characters trying to avert a tragedy under tragic circumstances, is cleverly-constructed, with its contrivances nicely obscured by the glorious sense of place and time seen, in hindsight, as at best another “grey area” moment in the mixed bag of late era colonialism, at worst as another crippling blow dealt to a culture destined to barely survive the experience.
Rating: TV-MA, nudity, smoking, discussion of suicide
Cast: Odunlade Adekola, Shaffy Bello, Jide Kosoko, Langley Kirwood, Jenny Stead and Deyemi Okanlawon
Credits: Scripted and directed by Biyi Bandele, based on the play by Wole Soyinka. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:37