Nigerian director Jeta Amata's Black November is at once passionate and cynical, a smash-up of tones that fits its story about a politicized, American-schooled 21-year-old girl from the Niger Delta who returns home to head a local uprising — and soon is sentenced to hang. Ebiere (Mbong Amata, the filmmaker's wife and a real talent) is a polarizing pacifist, one part Joan of Arc to two parts Martin Luther King.
Just as Ebiere arrives at her mother's hut, half the town dies in a gas pipe explosion. Despite attention from a nice white lady newscaster (Sarah Wayne Callies), the CEO of the U.S. oil company at fault (Mickey Rourke) shortchanges the survivors and orders the police to beat anyone who complains, pitting cousin against cousin like an impassive god.
Amata skillfully lays out the ways that Nigeria is screwed. The oil companies control the cops, soldiers and town elders with cash. When a village boss advises Ebiere to "think like a Nigerian," he means, "Just take a bribe."
Yet the rebels can't resist making things worse, packing guns at a peaceful protest, kidnapping innocent American workers and using the ransom to buy more weapons and fuel the violence.
Money is everywhere, but neither side will invest in a better future. And so saintly Ebiere leads because she must, even though she's ignored by her allies when she begs them not to lynch the guilty, and then punished by the powerful for failing to keep order.
Nigeria's local film industry — aka Nollywood — cranks out 1,000 films a year. Amata, the son of popular local actor Fred Amata, conceived of Black November as a $300,000 call to action against corruption in his country, which, as he reminds us in an opening crawl, has the seventh largest population on the globe, greater than Russia, Mexico or Japan.
In a curious twist, Nigerian oil tycoon Captain Hosa Wells Okunbo gave Amata $22 million to make the film, which bought him cameos from Kim Basinger, Vivica A. Fox, Anne Heche and music stars Akon and Wyclef Jean, all of whom are edited into a clumsy and expensive framing device where Ebiere's countrymen terrorize downtown Los Angeles with a tanker truck and demand their heroine be freed.
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Oddly, that extra star power makes Black November look cheap. It's threadbare for an action flick — we've seen Rourke glare at guns in a dozen other less important thrillers.
The story Amata wants to tell is much simpler, and he might have been more successful sticking to his own guns and staying with his sturdy, empathetic heroine. We don't need pop songs and campfire sex scenes and battered late-model sedans to make us care about his country.
But, in fairness, given how little attention the West continues to pay to Nigeria, it's understandable that Amata thought we did. And this heartbroken, angry mishmash of a movie, which leaves his wife's face off the American poster in favor of Rourke, Basinger and Akon, is both an attempt to fix his home and a sign of how much work lies ahead.
BLACK NOVEMBER | Written and directed by Jeta Amata | E1 Entertainment Distribution | Arena Cinema Hollywood