April 19, 2024

‘Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti’: Austen-Peters’ biopic, of feminine resilience, cinematic triumph

  • September 20, 2023
  • 8 min read
‘Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti’: Austen-Peters’ biopic, of feminine resilience, cinematic triumph

By Anote Ajeluorou

Kehinde Bankole as Funmilayo in Bolanle Austen-Peters’ biopic, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti

NIGERIANS are rather careless about history, their own history, which oftentimes fosters a dangerous, collective amnesia on the national consciousness. They are a people in a hurry to move on. But they end up getting nowhere, but retrogress instead. As the Isoko ask: Where’s the waste bin or dump site into which forgotten or ancient matters are dumped to decay, be forgotten and never to be remembered or exhumed? Practically nowhere! Yet memory here is like a swallow grave from which even dry bones are difficult to exhume to collective dismay.

Indeed so as never to forget a piece of feminine history, a biopic of significance has entered into the Nigerian cinematic lexicon and library. She’s a heroine found in civic education for young ones – the first woman to drive a car, one among the first women to be educated abroad, among the first to form a collective of women who organised to better the lot of other women, one who would suffer bruises as a result, one such women who confronted the colonial masters. Above all else, she’s one woman who organised her fellow women to confront a royal throne and made an erring monarch to scamper out of his palace in disguise like a commoner and never to return to his royal stool! Indeed, she’s the one who deployed women’s collective vaginas to trump royal, oppressive penises! These impressive, impeccable historical records Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti holds to her enduring name. But these records may be sketchy and disjointed in history books.

However, in definitive, finely wrought cinematic language these scenarios now leap out of the big screen to audiences world wide to roaring acclaim. And so from the cinematic lens of BAP Productions, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti is gracing the big screen across the country and beyond. The film has been acquired just as it emerged fresh from the oven lens of the director, Mrs. Bolanle Auaten-Peters, a woman who has wrought immense transformation on Nigeria’s stage and screen in the last decade when she decided to get deeply involved at the production end and not merely provide a platform for thespians to ply their trade. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti is her latest offering designed to make impact on screen with a piece of history centred on a woman, who came at the exact time her services to fellow women was needed, and she carried through without flinching.

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti is a folk legend. Born to the Thomas’s (Patrick Diabua) family that just returned from Sierra Leone at the behest of stoppage of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to settle Abeokuta, young Frances Thomas (Iyimide Ayo-Olumoko) fell under the inspiring tutelage of her Agriculturalist father, who didn’t believe that there’s a glass ceiling between anyone and their dreams. He marched off his first daughter to secondary school that had only male students at a time when many frowned at anyone sending their girl-child even to primary school. Her father had injected in young Frances a strong streak of never acquiescing to the status quo, and that there are no taboo subjects even for a woman. This is how she meets the young man Israel Ransome-Kuti (Iremide Fatasticks Adeoye), who would later become her husband (Ibrahim Suleiman) after rescuing her from being thrown into a well by her bullying male students. They fall in love. After secondary school, they separate for a while as he goes to Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone to study for his theological and teaching work and she headed for London also for further studies. They return to marry and raise a family. Armed with a higher education, she becomes involved in the life of Abeokuta community where she teaches. This is how her life takes a turn for the political and activism that brings her in direct collision with the authorities – colonial and monarchical powers.

After studying in London, Funmilayo promptly renounces her English name Frances and settles for Yoruba name, Funmilayo. She’d seen enough of the disgusting, racist British to keep their name, as a blemish on her person. That’s perhaps her first streak of independence and strong-mindedness. She’d led a relative quiet family life before the evil in the administration of the Alake of Egbaland hit her square in the face; she couldn’t but be drawn into it to fight off an oppressive force ranged against poor, powerless Abeokuta women whom she felt drawn. She’d gone to the market to enquire about one of her pupils, who’d skipped school from his mother. Just then the king’s law enforcers, known as Parakos, stormed the market to enforce one of the three oppressive taxes being exacted on market women, taxes that were making life difficult for the poor women who had no one speaking for them at the palace. Since the death of the last women’s leader, Iyaloja, the Alake refused to appoint another one, a ploy designed to stifle women’s voices in the palace. Funmilayo confronts the head of the Parakos and slaps him, an act deemed a sacrilege; even the market women witnessing the audacious act are aghast at Funmilayo for what they deem a lack of tact. But it stops the Parakos’ in their stride that day; this action gains small victory for the oppressed women.

In the meantime, Funmilayo had begun to organise the few educated, elite women in Abeokuta. But these women who fancied themselves the best in town, who behaved like English women merely gather to sit tea and chit-chat on juicy gossips and such small talks. But after Funmilayo’s experience at the market, she begins to steer these elite women into embracing the market women, so they could use their influence to work in their favour. But she is resisted by some who felt they could not be found in the same company as the illiterate and poor women of Abeokuta. But gradually Funmilayo’s insistence begin to pay off, as a compromise of sorts is struck for an integration of women from both divides begin to see themselves in the new light of being seen as fellow oppressed women. Soon a union is formed and the battle line is drawn between the women on the one hand, and the colonial masters and the Alake (Adebayo Salami) of Egbaland, on the other. Funmilayo’s first visit to the palace is greeted with so much disdain from Chief Osi (Dele Dule) and Chief Otun (Jide Kosoko), who mock her for daring the awesome powers of the palace. Although humiliated but she leaves the palace with her head held high and a renewed determination for the inevitable confrontation.

The mass of protesting women being beaten by Oba Alake’s bodyguards in front of the palace

Told in flashback fashion while a French journalist (Tatiana Nassar Boudokhane) is visiting Funmilayo (Joke Silver) to interview her in her hospital bed after she gets thrown down from a two-storeyed building while staying with her activist and musician son Fela, teh story takes a life of its own. Fela would sing about this tragic incident in his ‘Unknown Soldier’ revolutionary song that cast the military in unflattering terms when he sang in mournful tunes, ‘Dem kill my mama, dem kill my mama!

Beautifully told, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti ends on a note of pathos. Weighed down with age and the vagaries of life, Funmilayo couldn’t but express a sigh of sadness at how her life’s journey and success as an activist went. Just when she could have sat back to savour the victory she led the women to win against the Alake and being admitted into the ruling council, death visits thrice, with her beloved husband also passing. Even her interviewer is drawn into her elegiac mood as the interview winds down…

Austen-Peters’ bold approach and manner of telling the story stands the biopic out. Even more astounding is the massive women’s scene when they are massed in Alake’s courtyard to taunt and protest the oppressive misrule of the king against the women. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti is the life and times of a legendary heroine told in bold cinematic narrative language that will resonate with viewers across all ages. It’s a family film. It’s a historical film. It’s a film for all ages and all times. Abeokuta and Nigerian women owe a debt of gratitude to Austen-Peters for the astounding historical revival of this much beloved heroine. The casting for Funmilayo from girlhood (Iyimide Ayo-Olumoko) to her activist, adult persona (Kehinde Bankole) and her aged self (Joke Silva) all very flawless. Bankole’s outstanding performance can only be rated 5-star plus. It’s as if she was born for the role which she killed with expertise and ease. It’s huge credit to the director as well to bring the best out of her. Cinematography too is top notch. Altogether a sterling performance that will woo audiences of all ages to see the reenactment of one of Nigeria’s folk heroines on screen.

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