Nollywood USA: African Movie Makers Expand Filming to D.C. Area

A drop-dead beautiful Ghanaian actress is yelling at the director. Her voice — with that slightly British Ghanaian accent — echoes across the polished marble floors and bounces off the baby grand inside a Montgomery County mansion that has been turned into a movie set.

Cameras have stopped rolling. Actors lean against the bay windows overlooking the swimming pool.

“I’m human!” shouts the movie star, Yvonne Nelson. “I can complain if I want to complain. I am not a robot.”

Nollywood actor Majid Michel talks about the African film industry’s success. (DeNeen Brown/The Washington Post)

“No one can tell me what to do on my set!” warns the director, John Uche, a Ni­ger­ian who lives in Upper Marlboro. “I’ve directed bigger actors than you.”

The actress spins and storms up a circular staircase, retreating to her

bedroom lair and halting production.

This could be a disaster for this “Nollywood” movie. Filming has to be completed in three weeks.If the star quits, thousands of dollars are down the tube. The other actors — some of the biggest names in Africahave flown in from Nigeria and Ghana — will have wasted a trip. And the producer, Koby Maxwell, an award-winning Ghanaian musician turned moviemaker, will lose investors’ money.

Maxwell eyes the scene from the mansion’s kitchen, where he is peeling green plantains to boil for the cast’s dinner. Besides obtaining investors, writing the story, locking down actors and locations, and working with crew members on a major Nollywood production, he also has to cook supper.

As he rinses and slices, he tries not to show his worry. He has slept only two hours at a time in the past few weeks, worried about production, worried about accommodating actors, worried about filming on a shoestring budget. He cannot afford to lose this actress or this director. Everything is riding on “One Night in Vegas,” a movie Maxwell hopes will raise the bar on Nollywood production values.

The next three weeks will test his dream. While Hollywood dreamers wait to be discovered, Nollywood waits for no one.

Nollywood, the colloquial name used to describe the Nigerian film industry, is the second-biggest movie industry in the world in terms of number of movies made. The $500 million business churns out hundreds a year, second in film production behind India’s Bollywood. Hollywood comes in third.

According to a 2012 UNESCO survey, India produced 1,255 feature-length movies in 2011. Nigeria produced 997 movies in video format; and Hollywood produced 819films.

The hottest Nollywood actors earn as much as $10,000 per movie. Some earn $4,000 or $5,000. Some make more than 50 movies a year, rolling out productions one week after the next with a swiftness that would make a Hollywood actor’s head spin.

Nollywood has swept into Cameroon, the Caribbean and Ghana, which calls its industry Ghollywood. Now Nollywood actors and filmmakers have started making movies here. They call it Nollywood USA.

“We are trying to make the African filmmaking industry a force to be reckoned with worldwide,” said Majid Michel, a Ghanaian who is one of the most acclaimed actors in Africa. He recently traveled to Washington, New York and finally Philadelphia, where he received a humanitarian award from the city council for his contributions to Africa’s film industry and for building clean-water wells.

“Movies can connect people to places, and you see them in a different light,” says Michel, who calls himself “the Al Pacino of Africa.” He won the 2012 Africa Movie Academy Award for best actor. “It is almost spiritual for me what it does. ...

“In high school, we had these guests from Sweden who said, ‘Before we got here, we heard you guys lived with monkeys and you play with lions.’ After watching” Nollywood movies, he says, “they were amazed at seeing mansions and first-class roads. ... Our only weak point: We need to tell stories with better cameras and lights.”

Since 1962, when the first Nollywood movies were made, thousands of low-budget movies have been produced on cheap video CDs and distributed in Africa. Recently they’ve spread to the African diaspora in Europe and overseas.

Nollywood filmmakers, moving quickly to beat bootleggers, often sell movie rights directly to marketers who distribute copies to African stores or beauty shops for as little as $1.50. Shop owners in the states sell the movies for as much as $10 to Africans and increasingly African Americans, who find the plots of love, lust, greed, betrayal, black and white magic, and family dysfunction salaciously addictive.

Nollywood movies often play out epic themes of good overcoming evil, religious conflict and moral dilemmas. Bad guys often die, as they should. The princess is discovered in a village. The rich boy falls in love with the poor girl selling oranges on the side of the road, but his mother forbids the marriage. Despite a vindictive stepmother, the good son finally receives his inheritance from the chief.

Plots end with cliffhangers, encouraging audiences to buy Part 2 and Part 3. The acting is overly dramatic, overly over-the-top. The movies are shot not in studios, but in hotels, mansions of wealthy Nigerians or Ghanaians, or restaurants, showing an Africa that cracks Western stereotypes. The stars wear the latest fashions and drive big cars.

“You ask yourself, ‘Why am I sitting watching these movies?’ ” says Uche, the director from Nigeria. “If you look at the technical value, you wouldn’t want to associate with it. Most are still low standard, but it is the story; the stories are realistic, captivating and dramatic. You watch it, and you are glued to it.”

Uche, 45, is sitting on a golden L-shaped sofa in the sunken living room of a Ghananian pharmacist who has rented out the Brookeville mansion for filming “One Night in Vegas,” a romantic drama. Uche has taken a break to wait for the actress upstairs to calm down. The crew is taking a lunch of grilled peppered fish, fried plantains, stewed vegetables, jollof rice and banku.

“Everybody is talking about Nollywood now,” explains Uche, waving for an actress who has arrived on the set dressed like Marilyn Monroe to bring him fish with their heads on.

Uche continues with the assurance of a man who knows what he wants. “We’ve moved from the third-largest movie industry in the world to the second,” says Uche, who recently completed a deal with Comcast to offer Nollywood movies on demand. “We are in the limelight. It’s a novelty that is making waves right now, and people want to be part of it.”

Nollywood hit titles include “Jealousy,” “Revolution,” “Crime to Christ,” “The Prince Bride,” “The Night With Him,” “Death After Birth,” “Kingdom of Darkness,” “Tears of My Joy,” “Timeless Passion” and “Pool Party,” which opens with this booming voiceover:

“What happens when the one you love the most betrays you to the one that means the world to you? No one is above the law; there is none without sin. There is no crime without victims. ... This is a story that elaborates on the difference between revenge and tough love.”

Another hit, “Temptation 1 & 2,” explains its plot: “The spark that graced their marriage seems elusive, with the couple barely seeing eye to eye. A desire to escape the unserenity that pertains in his home to a blissful escapade, the unfortunate ignition for an unforeseen and protracted web of entanglement and blackmail. A tacit husband striving to salvage an almost fading marital union; a father grappling with the delicate health of his only child; a man desperate to unwind the twist that has befallen him.”

Most filmmakers point to 1992 as the pivotal year for Nollywood. It was the year when “Living in Bondage,” a blockbuster thriller shot in the Igbo language, later with English subtitles, was released on video CD.

“That was the first Nollywood movie that made waves and opened up the industry because of the guy who produced it, Kenneth Nnebue,” Uche says. “...The movie was a novelty because of the acting, the story line, the production and the hype.”

Before there was Nollywood, there were stage plays, film reels and radio. But the original source, Uche says, goes back to the storytelling culture in Africa, particularly in Nigeria. “Nigerians are considered the best writers in Africa, following the griot tradition in West Africa,” Uche says. “If you are born a griot, your son or daughter would be griot.

“In the village, elderly men would gather little children around and tell stories of things that happened way back — how the white man came and carried their sons and daughters away. How their fathers migrated from where they were. It is a culture of storytelling. We are taking that culture into film. ... What do they say? ‘Nobody can tell your story better than you.’ ”

Producer Koby Maxwell, 32, who lives in Manassas, looks drained on the set. He has not stopped cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, checking the filming schedule, arranging transportation for stars flying in from all around the world.

Maxwell has succeeded in casting many of the top stars in Nollywood for “One Night in Vegas”: Van Vicker; Yvonne Nelson; John Dumelo; Michael Blackson; Sarodj Bertin, a runway model and former Miss Haiti Universe; and Jimmy Jean-Louis, a Hollywood actor who has performed beside Glenn Close, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford and Matt Damon. Jean-Louis, who was born in Haiti, is also known for his role on the NBC series “Heroes,”which ended in 2010.

Pulling in Jean-Louis was a mega deal for Maxwell.

Jean-Louis, who has arrived from California, sweeps onto the set in black jeans and a black shirt. Waiting at the kitchen table before his scene, he talks about why he has decided to be part of this $150,000 production.

“The reason is to be part of the evolution and the growth of Nollywood,” Jean-Louis says. “I try to do one once a year. I did ‘Doctor Bello,’ ” a Nollywood movie released in February in theaters worldwide. The movie also starred Vivica A. Fox and Isaiah Washington. “They are slowly getting better results and quality. It’s on the verge of getting bigger.”

Director Uche yells for quiet on the set. “Let’s go again,” he shouts. “Let’s make it flow. Roll the cameras.”

But the extras in the kitchen move.

The director yells, “Cut!”

Maxwell chastises them: “People! People, let’s not move.”

Uche: “Camera rolling. Stand by! Action!”

Maxwell was determined not to wait for Hollywood to find him, tired of Hollywood trying to tell the African story, starring actors who are not African, such as Meryl Streep in “Out of Africa” and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Blood Diamond.”

“I want to use the technology of Hollywood to tell the African story,” he says. “My goal is to get more Americans and people in Hollywood to watch African movies. ... I’m ambitious of doing things other people hesitate to do or are afraid to do. I always say my intention is between myself and God. ... African people, we don’t often get a chance to show talent. ... It’s hard for us to expose how much we can do.”

Maxwell was born in Ghana, in a city called Saltpond. He first came to the United States in 1997, as a bass player for an artist called Kojo Antwi. “We toured New York City, played in the D.C. area at Warner Theatre, then returned to Ghana.”

Maxwell dreamed of returning to the States. “I was inspired to play with big names. I wanted to come to America and go to music school, but unfortunately it was a whole different world. ... My dream was to go to Berklee” College of Music in Boston. “That was a dream! ... But then you have to have money. You have to get a loan.”

Instead of school, he started “gigging with bands in D.C., in Adams Morgan. And I was good. That gave me an opportunity to gig with Chaka Khan, Dionne Warwick and Nancy Wilson.”

Maxwell released his first album of Ghanaian music in 2002; his second in 2004; his third three years later. “In 2009, people started getting to know my musical talent.” Then he was hired to produce soundtracks for some Nollywood movies in the United States.

“I started studying the industry, and looking at what is wrong; what can be done well and what is right; what is lacking in the industry to go to the next level. When I discovered all that and realized what is going on, I became vocal, but it wasn’t enough until I decided to run the show and produce a film.”

The fact that he had never written a script or produced a movie didn’t stop him. In 2009, he started writing “Paparazzi,” a love-triangle murder mystery starring African actors. It was shot in Atlanta on a $120,000 budget and won the 2010 Nollywood & African Film Critics’ Awardfor best film of the year. “Paparazzi” also won for best actress, best director, best cinematographer and best supporting actor.

“ ‘Paparazzi’ has become a model for African movies because of picture quality,” Maxwell says.

To improve the cinematography and editing, Maxwell worked with Tim “Black Magic” Wilson, 42, a Howard University-trained cinematographer who lives in Fort Totten. Wilson’s introduction to Nollywood came four years ago when he happened upon titles in a video store in Baltimore. “I didn’t know this subculture existed,” says Wilson, who calls Nollywood “the new black Hollywood.”

Wilson met Maxwell during a shoot for a music video. “I took a liking to him,” Wilson says. “He had a spark. He felt with my expertise he could move the industry to a more professional result.”

The idea for Maxwell’s next movie, “One Night in Vegas,” came while he was driving. A commercial came on the radio. “It said, ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’

“How about something happening in Vegas, and it comes to hunt you down,” Maxwell thought. He started writing. The movie would be about an African couple who travel from Maryland to Las Vegas on a business trip — only to encounter something that would change their marriage and their lives.

Maxwell sent the story to a screenwriter, then began looking for investors and his cast. To play the lead, he chose Dumelo, who with his square chin and black waves is one of the biggest stars in Africa.

“I liked the story line,” said Dumelo, 29, who has been acting since he was 7, when he and his sister were discovered in elementary school in Ghana by producers looking for siblings to appear in a movie.

Dumelo, who would go on to study engineering at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, has starred in dozens of movies, including his biggest, “The King Is Mine,” produced in 2008.

Maxwell’s next step was to find the lead actress. “I thought, ‘Who else in Ghana can fit?’ ” Maxwell recalled. “That’s where Yvonne Nelson came in. I called her rep, who also represents me as a musician.”

Nelson said yes. “Most of these people,” Maxwell says, “I’m able to get them. People have seen my work and appreciate what I did. People like that don’t want to put their image in anything that is not standard.”

When Maxwell called Uche, Uche read the script, asked for rewrites, then said yes. “Koby is somebody who dreams big,” Uche says. “That is a good thing to do. If you dream big, you fall on what is reasonable.”

Uche sits back on the plush L-shaped sofa on set and explains what happened with the actress. “I’m sure we will catch up,” he says.

“It was a little misunderstanding, but the buck stops with the director. I believe if you want to be respected, you should respect. I’m friendly, humble, but I wouldn’t want anyone to take that for foolishness. If you cross the bounds, I will let you know you crossed the bounds.

“If anything, I thank God for patience and grace. I tell people if you check my DNA, you will see inscribed on it ‘filmmaker.’ God designed me for the work and has given me the grace to manage my cast.”

Uche grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, with three sisters and one younger brother. His mother was a teacher; his father worked for the Nigerian Cocoa Board. After graduating college, Uche worked as an appraisal officer at a community bank. One day a friend asked him to fill in on a movie the friend was making. Uche fell in love with moviemaking and decided to make his own film.

First, he had to find an investor. A businessman eight hours away promised he would invest. For one year, Uche traveled eight hours to and fro trying to convince the businessman that Uche’s movie was worth his naira. “I would call ahead — he would know I was coming and when I get to the club,” Uche recalls,“they would say he has traveled. I would stay two days. Then he would tell me he could not talk now. ‘You will have to come back.’ ”

Eventually, the investor was impressed by Uche’s persistence. With an investment of $1,000, Uche made “Ashes of Hatred,” released in 1995 in the Igbolanguage, telling the story of two half-brothers whose father, a village chief, dies. The brothers fight for the rightful claim to his inheritance.

“We had a crop of the best artists: Dan Oluigbo played the main character; Sam Loco played another major role.”

Since then, Uche has directed some of the biggest movies in Nigeria, and in 2006, left for the United States to continue making them. “That’s all I do, nothing else. I’m a filmmaker.”

His latest, “Bianca,” a story of a young, ruthless woman who craves wealth above love, was filmed in Maryland and is set to be released in theaters in Nigeria this fall.

Up the spiral staircase, the beautiful Ghanaian actress is lying on her bed, tweeting and posting to her fans on Instagram.

“Most of my fans are young girls and men,” says Yvonne Nelson, 27. “The young girls come to you and say, ‘Oh, my God, I love you. You were so wicked. I like how you play the role.’ You pretend you know which movie. There are too many.”

But she is always gracious. “You realize they love what you do,” Nelson says. “There is nothing like that. It is priceless. ... I’m a simple chick. I don’t let it get to me. I do everyday stuff. We buy roasted plantain. I go to the mall without makeup. I wear my slippers. Some will approach to take a picture. Some will stay back and point. They are your fans.”

Nelson, who has 100,000 Twitter fans, reminds herself: “My mom always says, ‘Yvonne, remember to be nice.’ ”

Nelson was born in Accra in 1985. “My mom was a single parent. I grew up like any other kid in Ghana. I went to very, very good schools in Ghana” and got a degree in resource management.

When Nelson was 19, her best friend encouraged her to enter a beauty pageant. “ ‘Yvonne,’ she said, ‘you should do Miss Ghana 2005.’ She said, ‘You are wasting your height.’ ”

“I was chubby,” says Nelson, who is 5-foot-10. “She held my hands and convinced me.”

She started dieting and won the regional competition. “I made it to the final 20, the final 10, the final five.” She won for best talent. She won most photogenic. She made it to the finals, but something went askew.

She was asked a question, an easy question. All she had to do was say something, anything that would make sense.

“I fumbled the last question,” she recalls. She stretches out on the bed above the set.

“When I watch the video, I cry. I was the winner. The crown was mine. But everything happens for a reason.”

Soon after, she received a call to shoot a television series. “I shot 14 episodes. For movies, I was discovered by a guy. He saw me randomly. I was in a mall buying rice. He came up and asked me for an audition. ‘Do you want to act in a movie?’ They called me and gave me the script and, voila, I started shooting.”

Her first major movie was called “The Return of Beyoncé.”

“I’ve shot over 100 movies,” says Nelson, who has been nominated twice for honors from the Africa Movie Academy Awards. She won Africa’s best actress at the 2012 Africa Entertainment Awards. But “I’ve never been a greedy actress.” Some actors, “they want to be in every movie. They want to squeeze five movies a month. I don’t rush at all. In Africa, producers know how to shoot 10 scenes a day. At the end of the day, you don’t have to rush the shooting job.”

Nelson is finally ready for a call to go back on set. All is well now; she understands this director. He is taking his time.

In the space of three weeks, the film crew moves from mansion to club to hospital back to mansion. The movie wraps on time. The actors and actresses fly back to Ghana and Nigeria, back to Hollywood. Maxwell has already begun working on his next project.

He sits outside a Silver Spring restaurant eating grilled shrimp. His phone rings. It is Majid Michel, the biggest actor in Africa. (Note to readers: Do not call him an “African actor.” “I am an actor,” he says.)

Maxwell asks Michel to play in his next film, “Candy.”

“This is the film that will bring him to Hollywood,” Maxwell says.

Michel arrives to meet Maxwell for lunch. He is wearing an open shirt. One of his toenails is painted pink.

Fans spot him. A Metro bus rolls to a stop and girls pour out and race down the street in yellow platform shoes, swooning.

“Majid! Maaaajiiiiddd!”

“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! I love your movies. You are the best actor!”

“I am so happy,” says Kadijatu Sesay, 22, a student at Montgomery College. “The way you talk. The way you act. You are good, really good. I’ve seen everything he has acted in.”

“You are my favorite,” says Diana Kouacou, 20, also a student. “I’m speechless. I watch African movies every night.”

Michel, in a gray shirt and black vest, kisses his fans, one by one.

More girls push through the gathering crowd for autographs, to touch a real-life star from Africa.

Michel and Maxwell stop for more photographs.

Cars swoosh by. Other people pass, oblivious to the scene that is unfolding — a Nollywood actor and a Nollywood moviemaker preparing to dethrone Hollywood. All it takes is one good story, a good camera and a good crew.

WATCH: Five Nollywood film trailers

DeNeen L. Brown is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.com.

DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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