by Osamudiamen Joseph
Even if you have been living under a rock, chances are you have come across some promotional material for the sequel to Kemi Adetiba’s 2018 movie, King of Boys. From the teaser released almost a year ago to the countless ads on YouTube and the radio promoting Netflix’s new mobile payment plan of #1,200 per month, it’s been exceptionally hard to miss.
I wrote a critique of the first movie where I mentioned that “the last shot where Eniola peers over her cup, smiling with her eyes into the camera and straight at the audience is…pregnant with meaning. The king will return. And you’d better be ready when she does.” And the king does return, in a seven-part miniseries aptly titled, The Return of the King, ready to take Lagos by storm once again.
The sequel to King of Boys was always going to be an event film. I had pictures in my head of turning up to the cinema, together with other cinephiles and the general moviegoing public, decked in white agbada and fine leather shoes to boot, eager to witness the homecoming of the king. And even though we couldn’t get the cinemagoing experience, the seven episodes available on Netflix promise more meat on the bones of this story, more characters, more plot threads, more conflict and a deeper dive into the world of corrupt politicians, heartless gangsters and law-abiding government officials that held us spellbound in the first installment.
This is a review of the first episode in the series.
The episode begins with a party organized by Illbliss’s Odogwu Malay. There is music, dancing and a general feeling of merriment in the air that is suddenly cut short by news of Eniola Salami’s unexpected arrival. Her well-wishers have come to the airport to welcome her back to her fatherland. Someone informs the crowd that mama ti de o, and we immediately hear Eniola’s theme, that haunting piece of music we were left with at the end of the first movie: the king is back for real. The headline on TV reads: Recently exonerated Eniola Salami returns after 5-year exile abroad.
She first addresses the crowd through Mr. Fashina and then when the people implore her to speak for herself, she announces her intention: the Lagos state gubernatorial elections are coming up and she declares that she’s throwing her gele in the ring. A reporter asks her why she has returned to a country where she lost everything and her response is as vague as it is badass: ile oba to jo, ewa lo bu si. One heartwarming scene in the episode is her reunion with Ade Tiger who has become something of a surrogate son to her.
The rest of the episode introduces the other players in this saga: Odudubariba (played by an exceptionally cast Charles ‘Charlyboy Oputa) who has seized control of the table in her absence; Dapo Banjo (Efa Iwara) a journalist whose unhealthy obsession with work has alienated his family; and the governor and First Lady of Lagos state (Lord Frank and Nse Ikpe-Etim).
However, by far, the highlight of the episode comes when Eniola visits the grave of her children. It’s clear she is still grieving and right then and there, she is ready to retire, to give up all her ambition and her revenge schemes and live out the rest of her days being grateful to God for the gift of life. But the ghost of her past self still haunts her. Literally.
In a fresh and exciting directorial decision by Kemi Adetiba, Eniola’s younger self, played by Toni Tones, follows her around and frustrates all her desires to turn over a new leaf. She is constantly yelling at her to get rid of her guilt and get her act together. She is the manifestation of Eniola’s rage; rage born out of getting trampled on in the last movie by the higher-ups; rage that is swelling from the loss of her children and status while her enemies partied in her wake, feasting on the carcass of what was left of her glory.
This Return of the King is like a chess game and this first episode is the equivalent of all the players being arranged on the board in their starting positions. Here, Kemi Adetiba expands on the previous story by introducing more characters and lets us know what is at stake. In the last movie, Eniola was frustrated from fighting battles on three fronts: at home, with her children (especially Kitan), at the table with Makanaki and his insubordination, and with Aare and the higher-ups who denied her ministerial appointment. In this series too, she is not without opposition: the governor and the first lady are threatened by her political aspirations while Odudubariba states clearly that he wants Eniola on her knees begging for her life. It is revealed, too, that the president is not quite happy with her. And of course, Aare is back and, just like last time, he is a force to be feared.
This first episode titled A King’s Welcome is bold and it delivers on the promise of the premise: the king has returned. Yes, she’s at her lowest point (she even has to run her operations from a guest house because all her assets have been seized and her funds, frozen) but a lion does not stay down for too long.
There were a couple things I found a bit off in the execution though. There is a scene where Eniola asks for fresh pepper to be boiled in water and given to her. Later, we see her soak a whip in the mixture and engage in some self-flagellation. Literally. The problem with this is that it feels very on-the-nose and throws all opportunity for nuance out the door. How is the audience supposed to know that Eniola is not only still grieving but still blames herself for what happened to her children? Well, let’s have a scene where she literally whips herself. Given that the scene never happens again or figures again in any way, it seems tacked on for the shock factor. Sometimes, a story is told and characters are created in broad strokes and sometimes, nuance is necessary. A piece of art is truly great when it can combine both approaches seamlessly.
Another element that had me confused was Eniola’s character. King of Boys (2018) was many things: a neo-noir, a political thriller, a gripping drama. It was also a really detailed character study of Eniola Salami. The audience got to observe the antihero in all her complexity. One scene she is giving a piece of material to a customer for free, the next she is smashing a hammer into a man’s temple and wiping the blood on her aso-oke. In this sequel, her motivations are a little muddled. Why exactly does she want to become governor? Why is she essentially ghosting Odogwu Malay? She gives a speech where she claims to have the people’s interests at heart unlike the governor and his family who own all the properties in Ikoyi West but isn’t this technically misleading since she also has a lot of wealth and properties of her own? Isn’t this the world she belonged and still in a way belongs to? Why does she want to become governor?
The journalist character is supposed to be the unrelenting government official adamant in the pursuit of truth just like Inspector Gobir was in the last movie but the actor fails to sell us on this character the way Paul Sambo did. Banjo also has family troubles of his own but it all feels flat, like we’re not only treading familiar territory but are doing it with someone less compelling.
In spite of the above, the episode and the series at large is a blast. I said in my critique of the first one that we can only expect great things from the sequel. And great things we -or rather, I- got, at least in the first episode. Both the first movie and the sequel are trending on Netflix in positions 1 and 2 respectively. Congratulations to Kemi Adetiba for this monumental achievement, the first of its kind. In a lot of ways, this has opened up the floor for the next generation of filmmakers and storytellers to deliver good stories that can reverberate not only in the country and the continent but around the world as well.