The excerpts from Brian Larkin’s Signal and Noise make interesting claims about the nature of cinema in colonial Nigerian society. For instance, rather than seeing the rise of cinema as a commodity, as evinced by the rise of cinema in the West (and, as Larkin notes, throughout much of the scholarly work on cinema in general), Larkin sees cinema as constitutive of a deeply political form of media. He suggests that Nigerian cinema, as a model for a newly devised theory of film, has a “role in the production of twentieth-century modernity” (76). That is, instead of being made by independent film innovators, Nigerian cinema was made by British paid civil servants; instead of simply being made for entertainment, Nigerian films were made didactically to inform the Nigerian populace of the benefits of the “civilizing mission;” instead of being consumed in urban movie theaters, mobile cinema units penetrated rural areas.
Part of this comes from what Larkin defines as the “colonial sublime,” an attempt to represent the splendors of uniquely Western invention while simultaneously using technology as a tool to “Westernize” Nigerians. Thus, when crowds of hundreds encircled mobile film screens, lured by a sense of awe and wonder, they watched medical and educational films which presented to them the wrongness of “tradition” in the face of the “rightness” of modernity. As Larkin says, “cinema works to produce subjects by intervening in the physical and cognitive ways people understand and live in the world,” and this was particularly true in Nigeria with the rise of the “majigi” (83).
The “majigi,” or mobile film unit, was a purposeful attempt at inculcating the Nigerian populace, evidence of how “British colonialists self-consciously presented electronic technologies… as a form of magic and wonder, a mode of power that could compete with indigenous supernatural force” (93). Hence the duality of cinema in colonial Nigeria. On the one hand, the newness of cinema showcased British superiority, while on the other it was a tool to civilize Nigerians and subsequently efface that superiority. This “new form of perception and attention,” of political proselytizing, is, in my mind, Larkin’s most interesting point (94). Borrowing from Jonathan Beller, Larkin suggests that the “dominant narrative structure of film offers… a means of securing attention” and “an organization of narrative and spectacle in order to win over the viewer’s identification and affective response” (161). In essence, cinema helped to justify the legitimacy of colonial rule, created rifts between the traditional and the modern through viewings, and, more than anything else, worked to construct Nigerians as Nigerian.