Kemi Adetiba’s surprise 2017 box office mega-hit King of Boys is back. After the film’s runaway success, Netflix commissioned a sequel: a seven-part limited series, the streaming platform’s first from Nigeria. The small screen works as a more appropriate fit both for Adetiba’s notable propensity to embrace soapie dramatic excess and for the sheer breadth of the story she is telling. The original film had a staggering 169-minute run time.
The film was a treatise on the corruption of absolute power as told through the rise and fall of the protagonist, the instantly iconic Eniola Salami. The charismatic crime boss, played with manic glee by Sola Sobowale, has since become a fan favourite.
The Return of the King picks up five years after the events of the original. Salami, who fled the country to avoid prosecution for her crimes, returns to Nigeria as a free citizen. The first thing she does on arrival is announce she is running for governor in Lagos’s upcoming election. Her political ambition attracts more dangerous enemies, even as Salami faces the uphill task of reclaiming leadership of the underworld organisation she used to lead.
She also finds herself alone, after the tragic loss of her children. She is then forced to face herself, perhaps for the first time in her life. The contradictions and hypocrisies that Salami finds within are filtered through the instincts of her younger self, who also functions as her explosive id. Alas, the actress (Toni Tones) who plays this role hams it up so recklessly that it is drained of any proper impact. Elsewhere, the other actors do not fare much better, doing what they can with paper-thin roles.
For Adetiba and her team, finding the appropriate medium for the project was one thing, knowing what to do with it is quite another. The Return of the King is occasionally visually interesting, with flashes of excitement erupting at intervals as it pays homage to the storytelling gusto of popular Nollywood films of the nineties. However, while the film at least had Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy as a guiding text, the Netflix series sets off on its own adventure and struggles to spark the creative urgency needed to propel it across seven hours.
Adetiba repeatedly falls into old patterns, rehashing a lot of what worked the first time. The pressure to deliver hangs over the project and she chooses “bigger” every time she is faced with a creative decision. Bigger cast, bigger performances, bigger costumes, longer scenes, bigger plot twists and plenty of fan service.
But bigger doesn’t always translate to better and although The Return of the King delivers a thrilling climax that dials up the twists and the gore, the entire series feels slight, despite being heavy on plot. Instead of merely dialling up the sound and the fury, The Return of the King might have benefited from a deeper contextualising of the screenplay and more commitment to basic research.
The challenges start from the writing and extend to the heavy-handed approach that Adetiba takes to the material, consistently lengthening scenes with superfluous reams of dialogue; scenes that could easily be established with a look here, or subtext there. Adetiba retains sole screenplay credit, but it is clear dramaturgy isn’t her strong suit.
The nexus between crime and politics was already well established with the original King of Boys. The Netflix series updates the religious angle while retreading familiar arguments, all the while fully embracing nihilism.
But all is fair, it seems: in love, in war and on Netflix’s small screen.