Beemer, Benz, Bentley, Porsche, Ferrari, Range Rover Jeep, Mercedes, Mercedes, Mercedes. A traffic jam of luxury cars snakes up the Eko Hotel driveway in Lagos, Nigeria. It’s just another night during a festive season on Victoria Island… or is it? With a population of over 160 million (22 million of which live in Lagos alone), Nigeria is the economic and population powerhouse of the African. Lagos is the third largest city in the world after Shanghai and Karachi, and during Christmas holidays, it feels like every Nigerian in the diaspora returns home to live it up and chop money. But tonight is a homecoming of a slightly different sort.
Under the haze of a setting sun, large fruit bats swoop to devour moths caught in the spotlights while scintillating evening gowns of sequins and taffeta mingle with bejeweled melanin. At exactly 7:30, armed guards rush to open car doors as Louboutin beauties and Armani-tuxedoed gents spill out onto the red carpet, inciting a crescendo of flashing paparazzi and champagne corks.
EbonyLife TV founder/executive director Mosunmola Abudu spared no expense in creating an Oscar-worthy event for the Lagos premiere of Fifty. “Fifty is a celebration of all that is good in and about Lagos and Africa as continent,” she says.
A two-year veteran in the TV space, Fifty is Abudu’s first foray into feature-length filmmaking, and she’s already leading the pack in terms of execution. The event was on time. In one fell swoop, Mo Abudu created a blueprint for quality and presentation. The event (held December 13) is already being spoken about as the biggest film premiere in the history of Nigerian cinema. Normally, you cannot outdo Nigeria when it comes to hyperbole, but this is spot on.
The Lagos event is Fifty’s second premiere. The first was held at the 59th annual BFI London Film Festival amidst huge fanfare that exposed Leicester Square to African drumming from U.K.-based talking drummers. The film was selected in the festival’s Love Category and issued resounding applause from the mostly White audience in attendance. But nothing tops Lagos.
Once inside the Eko venue and beyond the velvet ropes—past the paparazzi, the steady flow of waitress with unlimited glasses of wine and champagne, the TV-crew presenters with outstretched microphones and digital recorders, the 3D selfie printer (where they do that at?), the shotgun-wielding armed guards—the red carpet flowed through the long and spacious corridors of the hotel. It spilled out into a cavernous ballroom fitted with over a 100 white high-thread-count tableclothed round tables and the chitter-chatter of Nigeria’s crème de la crème.
The room was heavy with the thick scent of Black money, and rightfully so. Attendees rubbed shoulders with dignitaries from government and the private sector. This was African balling. Tickets were priced in categories that, when translated from the local Naira to the dollar, basically amount to $8,000 a table.
In that beautifully air-conditioned, jasmine-scented venue, we stood amongst proud countrymen who rose to the national anthem sung by singer Nikki Laoye. We toasted champagne to the comedy of Ayo Makun (better known as A.Y). We took breaks from our spicy chicken, plantain and Jollof meals to wipe perspiration from our foreheads and dance in our seats to the beats of King Sunny Adé, Tiwa Savage and Waje. All this before watching Fifty! If this premiere was your date night, it was lit to say the least.
After dessert, we were all escorted into the adjacent darkened ballroom cum cinema to actually watch the film.
Directed by Biyi Bandele and executively produced by Mo Abudu, Fifty captures a few pivotal days in the lives of four Nigerian women at the pinnacle of their careers. Tola, Elizabeth, Maria and Kate are forced at midlife to take inventory of their personal lives, while juggling careers and family against the sprawling backdrops of the upper middle-class neighborhoods of Lagos.
Upper middle class? In Africa? The international media has done a great job of convincing the world (especially African Americans) that the continent is dusty, war torn, famine filled, and AIDS stricken. But it’s easy to see a sophisticated Lagos emerging as the fifth character in the film, undoubtedly (like the premiere event itself) evolving our perception of what contemporary Nigeria looks like. If you are reading this, your idea of Africa has probably already gone from nada to Prada, and that ultimately is Mo Abudu’s goal.
“I founded EbonyLife to change the narrative, to balance the narrative,” she says. “When I interviewed Hillary Clinton many years ago and asked how we change this stereotypical view the world had of Africa, her response was that more people like me had to speak on behalf of Africa.”
Available on Netflix beginning December 28, Fifty is Mo Abudu’s quest to showcase African women coming of age. The film is loaded with increasingly similar aspirations and dilemmas faced by contemporary women of color everywhere while navigating unresolved traditions and obligations specific to life in the contemporary Nigerian experience.
By two in the morning, the lobby of the hotel is awash with the last straggling partygoers. Cell phones to ears, dark shades and sinewy mahogany legs step up to be Uber’d off into the waiting night. The pulsating old school beats from DJ Jimmy Jat’s Serato still echo in my ears, and I’m reminded of Kwame Nkruma’s words regarding the future of an ideal Africa that embraces all of its individual parts: “We face neither East nor West; we face forward.” And I realize we are alive in his waking dream. This is Africa.