How Nigerian hit movie ‘Black Book’ broke Netflix

This was the year Nollywood made Netflix history. The Black Book, a revenge thriller from first-time director Editi Effiong became the first-ever Nigerian film to soar to No. 3 on Netflix’s worldwide film charts.

The film, made for $1 million garnered 5.6 million views just 48 hours after its Sept. 22 bow on the platform and was watched by more than 20 million people in its opening weeks, breaking Netflix’s Top 10 list in more than 69 countries.

The film stars Nigerian film legend Richard Mofe-Damijo as Paul Edima, a deacon whose dark past returns after his son (Olumide Oworu) is framed for kidnapping by a corrupt police gang and Edima swears revenge.

While critics have dubbed The Black Book Nigeria‘s answer to John Wick, the film combines action and its revenge storyline with a primer on Nigerian history, tracing the past 40 years from life under military rule to the current climate, where, in Effiong’s words, “many in the military just changed into civilian clothes and ran for government.”

Government corruption, police brutality and the often futile struggle of ordinary Nigerians for justice form the backdrop for Effiong’s impressive action sequences.

“Authenticity was key for us, showing Nigeria as it is, in a way that Nigerian people would recognize,” says Effiong. “Not a Hollywood version of Lagos, but Lagos as we Nigerians see it.”

The film’s success has raised the bar for Nigerian movies, which have proven a driving force for Netflix and other streaming services as they look to expand across Africa and to export African cinema worldwide. An August report from market intelligence group Digital TV Research expects the African SVOD market to see major growth in the coming years, with SVOD subscriptions forecast to hit 18 million by 2029, more than double the estimated eight million today.

The Nigerian movie industry is at “the point right now where the world needs to take notice,” says Effiong.

The Black Book director spoke to The Hollywood Reporter from Lagos about making “the biggest film out of Nollywood” and why the Nigerian film industry is strong.

Were you surprised when The Black Book dropped on Netflix and became a monster hit overnight?

No, I wasn’t. Let me explain. This is my first film as a director and I remember the first day on set, the first crew meeting. I was going crazy. I’m just walking around thinking: This is actually happening. I looked around and I was probably one of the least-experienced people in the room.

So I said: Look, guys, this film is, the scale of the script, is probably unlike anything you’ve ever done, it’s going to test everyone, it’s going to push everyone. But if you just give me your trust and we do what we’re planning to do, we are going to make the best film any of us have ever made.

About two weeks into shoots, my script supervisor pulls me aside and say: Editi, I thought you were a bit cocky at that first meeting. But I think I’m seeing it now.

When I was meeting with my investment partners, I told them: This will be the biggest film out of Nollywood. CNN came on set to do a special on the film and I told them: This is biggest Nollywood film yet. You can go back and check, I put that on my Instagram. So when the film comes out, and it was the biggest Nollywood film ever, I went back to my friends at CNN and said: I said it. I did it.

Editi Effiong
Editi Effiong / © AHAM-IBEDEME

But I’m gonna be honest with you. When I refreshed that page, and the daily tracker showed it was a global hit on Netflix. Well, everyone just lost their minds.

What do you think is the secret behind the film’s phenomenal success?

We did everything to the highest standards, the highest standards in production but also, importantly, the highest standards in pre-production. We spent time on the scripts, we spent about two years writing and preparing the script. Usually, Nollywood films are shot over two to three weeks. We shot this over four months.

I spent a lot of time and was very careful to make sure the images on the screen were world-class. I didn’t want to be great by Nigerian standards, I wanted to be great by every standard. From the camera, to the lenses, to the lights. We were the first Nigerian movie to shoot on Panavision cameras and equipment. It was expensive but we went out and raised the money to ensure we could meet those standards.

We also spent a lot of time rehearsing, getting the actors to train for the roles, which also is not standard in a lot of Nollywood movies. The R&D for this film was 13 months and you can see it in the performances.

Many have compared The Black Book to Hollywood action movies like John Wick, but it seems to me to be very specifically Nigerian.

Authenticity was very important to us. It was important for us to see Legos through the eyes of everyone in the city, through the eyes of poor people, middle-class people, and rich people. To show the world in a way that Nigerians can see themselves reflected in it. When the film addresses a subject like police brutality, we tackle it from a Nigerian perspective.

I watched that Marvel film, Captain America: Civil War, and there was a scene supposedly shot in Lagos, it says so on the screen: Lagos, Nigeria. There’s a market and there’s a fight. And I was watching this, and thinking: Come on Hollywood! I could have done better! Because that’s not how Nigerian markets look. Now, watching The Black Book, our scene at the market, that’s how a Lagos market looks.

Editi Effiong on set of 'The Black Book'
Editi Effiong on set of The Black Book. ANAKLE-FILMS

It’s only about one minute of screen time but it took us three months to plan. We went to the street gangs, to get them to work with us and let us shoot there. We brought in 300 extras who are Lagos people. We paid the actual market women and trained them to ignore the camera and act. This was done in the middle of COVID so we tested everyone to make sure no one would infect our 59-year-old leading man.

But like when you see that market, that’s what a Nigerian market looks like! It’s rowdy, everyone’s moving, no one’s looking at you, you’re getting pushed here and there. That kind of authenticity is what Nigerians connected with because it wasn’t the world telling the story of Africans, it wasn’t a Hollywood version of what a Nigerian market looks like, it was from here.

You reference several real-life events and political developments in Nigeria, why was this political backdrop important to the story you wanted to tell?

I think Nigeria today is fundamentally different from what Nigeria was 40 years ago, when the military was in charge of things. Now, a lot of people who were in the military just changed into civilian clothes and ran for government. But the impact of the things, like the impact of the drug trade, has been immense.

But young people in school don’t learn the history of Nigeria, our schools don’t teach them the history, so they are cut off from it. With the film, I try to immerse people in our history and be as authentic as possible in doing so.

I was 13 years old when the secret police came to my school and told us to shut down a press club. Back then the military was still in power. I know the fear that I felt then and knowing that allows you to stay authentic at all times, to tell authentic stories like the ones we would read in the underground newspapers of the time when journalists weren’t allowed to write openly but could only write underground.

The story of military dictatorship, political corruption and government-sanctioned violence is, sadly, quite a universal one.

One of the most touching messages I got from a guy in Colombia. He said: You may think that this is the story of Nigeria. But this is exactly the story of my country. And I’ve got the same message from Brazil, from Suriname, from Argentina, from Chile, from India, Pakistan. I was so touched by that.

I think the biggest validation for me was that a film made by Black people with Black faces, and 100 percent Nigerian money went on top the world’s biggest streaming platform. It was top three in the world, top 10, and number one in about 20 countries.

But the one that made me really proud was it was number one in South Korea. South Korea is one of the world’s biggest entertainment markets, where the audience has great taste. For South Koreans chose this film with Black faces, made by a Black person with Black money, well it tells me that we can tell our own stories by ourselves for ourselves and the world will embrace them.

The Black Book poster

The Black Book was entirely financed out of Nigeria?

Yes, 100 percent. I’m not a charity case. What I think is happening now is we, as Africans, as Nigerians, are realizing we can fund our art, our movies by ourselves. So if I go to L.A., I’m not asking for some studio to pay for my development. I’m paying for my development on my own. What we need is access to the market, we need distribution.

So my pitch is: This story we’re telling can go out into the world and make you a lot of money. We’re not asking you to do us a favor. We’re telling you we can tell our stories in a way that will look better than Hollywood, be more authentic than Hollywood, and do so at a fraction of the budget. We can fund them ourselves.

I’ve shown with $1 million I can make a film that looks like a $100 million Hollywood movie. I’ll finance it myself. All I need to go global is access to your distribution.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently in talks about doing a biopic of a major African figure, but I can’t reveal any details right now. Previously, if I’d gone to Hollywood to make this film, people would have looked for someone else to direct it, to develop the story. But with the success of The Black Book, I’m in the position to tell this story myself, which is amazing.

We also have a multi-picture slate we are currently in the closing stages of raising money. Fundraising has also become much easier because The Black Book really validated our hypothesis, our business plan. Which is: We want to spend the next five years telling the next generation of African stories. It all starts from here.

Source: Hollywood Reporters

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