By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/18/21 – An interesting and timely film screened at Outfest 2021 on Saturday night, August 14, 9:30 pm – namely, The Legend of the Underground (Get Lifted film Co., 2021). This film directed by Nneka Onuorah and Gisele Bailey follows two tight-knit groups of chosen families of young gay men, one of Nigerian immigrants in New York City and the other living in a safe house for gay men in Lagos, Nigeria. The Legend of the Underground paints a portrait of a new generation of gay men that uses social media, underground radio, and any other resources at their disposal to fight for their rights of personal expression. Through bold creativity they work to spark a cultural revolution that would challenge the ideals of gender, conformity, and civil rights in Nigeria. This film which has been picked up by HBO was executive produced by Mike Jackson, John Legend, Ty Stiklorius and Austyn Biggers of Get Lifted Film Co.
It all started out as an attempt by the filmmakers to document a group of gay men including Michael Ighodaro who lives with his friends and who is part of the Nigerian diaspora, working to advocate for the people and communities he left behind in Nigeria after having been attacked for his identify. Through Michael, the filmmakers became interested in the situation of young gay men in Lagos, Nigeria, living in a safe house and seeking a safe haven abroad, or choosing to stay and fight a system that seeks to silence them. Essential to understanding their plight is knowing that in 2013, Nigeria enacted a draconian anti-LGTBQ law known as the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill (SSMPA). Since then, the law has been used to harass, imprison, extort, and commit violence against anyone seen as not conforming to Nigerian societal and cultural norms. The Legend of the Underground is a look at the struggle against rampant discrimination in Nigeria today, as seen through the lens of several bold and charismatic, non-conformist youth who fight to live out loud.
The frame story is that of Michael Ighodaro who decides to return to Nigeria to observe first-hand what is happening to young gay men there. He had been living in New York for a number of years as a refugee and asylum seeker. The filmmakers Nneka Onuorah and Gisele Bailey decided to follow along and capture the story of the Nigerian Gay Underground themselves first-hand. The African country, as the subjects explain, operates under a machismo culture wherein men are expected to stand, walk, and talk a certain way. Nigeria’s LGBTQIA population, however, often challenges these reductive definitions of masculinity. In one sequence, a pageant called “Mr. Ideal Nigeria” featuring classically muscular men upends such toxic standards of what makes a man.
The film opens with an underground podcast host OKTIMILEYIN, known as Timi, who won’t let queer stories go untold in Lagos with his podcast QueerCity. Gay Nigerian men find queer spaces in which to meet, socialize, and dance. He has been working to create a space where the world can see and hear the story of gay Nigerians – in hope that Nigeria will decriminalize queerness and allow people to be free to be humans. He points out that in Lagos, there seem to be five churches in every city block. Of course, this is all due to conquest and colonization by the British. Originally, androgyny was very African when Nigeria existed as tribes and kingdoms. As Timi points out, “And in every tribe and every kingdom in Nigeria, there is a dedicated word that describes non-binary people, that describes queerness. Long before colonization. Now this is to tell you that our ancestors had always recognized that there are queer bodies amidst us.” In many ancient Nigerian communities, there was an older queer “historian” who was androgynous. In Hausa and Ibgo cultures, these were called “yan daudu,” meaning effeminate men. In Yoruba culture, there is no “he” or “she” pronoun. Only the “they” pronoun exists.
To survive as gay in Nigeria today is quite challenging. To practice consensual sex in safety, the community often code switches: going to “the market” means you’re hookin up; “TB” is another way to ask if you’re gay; “Kitto” means you’re scandalous. This community exists underground, forever in danger of the next police raid, the extended jail sentence, the succeeding death threat. Thanks to the advent of more smart phones in Nigeria, the advent of new digital spaces, — Tik Tok, Instagram space, Twitter space — all of these things coming up are giving gay people places to lend their own voices. These spaces allow young LGBTQ people to come and talk as a community. So, between then and now, there’s been a little shift in paradigm. The Nigerian queer community still lives in fear. “But then the thing is we might, we might, we might experience societal acceptance earlier than legal acceptance.”
One of the “stars” of this documentary is a young gay man who goes by the name of “James Brown,” like the legendary U.S. rock singer James Brown. Inspired by the U.S. James Brown, this young man who is fierce and articulate, wants to become an actor and loves performing as a dancer. He was one of 57 young men arrested at a party because they were arrested at a hotel party and the police accused them all of being homosexual. Young James Brown went viral on YouTube with the hashtag “They Didn’t Caught Me,” explaining that he had nothing wrong because he was not touching anyone or having intercourse – and thus there was no evidence for arresting him and others on charges of homosexual behavior. This led to a huge court battle in Nigeria over human rights and false evidence by the police. As James Brown puts it: “I have my peers, I’m part of LGBT community here, but I have so much more to give than that. I have talent, I can dance, I can sing, I can write songs, I can act. So. I want to show Nigeria that you can be whoever you are, you’re not going to be defined by your personality, by your sexual orientation, status, background. You can be defined by your talent, by your God-gifted talent. I was trying to prove the old Nigeria, the old world, wrong.”
This James Brown is an internet star now and the embodiment of a new gay Nigerian future. He pointed out in an interview done after the film was shot, “When I did that documentary, I was nothing. I had no financial status, no respect. I was known, but I wasn’t respected. But now, I have a place to live, I rent an apartment, I’m working around the clock. Being LGBTQ in Nigeria, being feminine, it’s very hard for us to get money. The only way I can make money is by being myself on social media platforms, using entertainment. Through that, people will pay me well for adverts, some promotion, publicity, a lot of things.”
The filmmakers here seamlessly meld tragedy and triumph. A few subjects recall how they were ostracized from their families and church for being gay, and for being diagnosed with HIV. Others recount their long journeys to America for asylum, only to now exist under a different kind of erasure: the limbo of “alien” status. The film has its limits and does focus mainly on gay men. Obviously, there are lesbians in Nigeria, although we don’t hear anything about them; perhaps that is a subject for further investigation. The Legend of the Underground is a film that will open your heart to the plight of gay men in Africa who are part of our larger global LGBTQ+ community. If you missed seeing the film at Outfest over the weekend, check with HBO and their upcoming schedule.