Does “The Master” glamorize the 419 life, or vilify it? That’s a question I’ve puzzled over since I watched the second half of “The Master” last night on YouTube. Honestly, I was a little confused over the latter half of the plot: Do Dennis’s underlings start setting up 419 schemes of their own, but to not as much success? Does Dennis really pay off people praying in a church so he can be there in peace? And lastly, although the film ends with Dennis’s arrest and subsequent persecution over his involvement in the 419 schemes, how vehemently are we expected to root for his guilt?
That final scene is a troubling one: On the one hand you have reporters accosting Dennis about his alleged crimes, accusing him of using fraudulent 419 schemes to inflate his personal wealth at the detriment of others. But then you have Dennis’s own rebuttal, which brings in international politics; in his defense, he mentions how other nations and businesses coming into Nigeria and sapping it of its resources are the real crimes, and his 419 involvement is just his personal attempt at evening the score. Haven’t we had this discussion in class already? And as Larkin notes in “Extravagant Aesthetics,” this speech is a clear “form of ethical evidence that highlights key moral conflicts in society” (184): Are the 419ers right?
According to Larkin, the Nigerian government wishes films like “The Master” would act like “a key force to counter Nigeria’s international reputation for corruption and violence, offering a more positive vision of Nigerian culture and industry” (176), but I truly don’t think the film functions in that way. Instead, it is that “extravagant, inflated world of melodrama” (169) that prevails; the film spends more time trying to shock its viewer than teaching them any kind of moral lesson. Think about all the time the music changes into a high-pitched screech when Dennis does something immoral, or the close-ups of the victims’ faces: these “extravagant shocks designed to outrage the viewer” (172) are what the government wants you to remember from the film.
But I was more shocked by the palatial mansions, the fancy cars, the classy clothes—as Prof. Green-Simms noted in class, all those places and things actually exist, because Nollywood doesn’t invest in creating film sets. It was that straddling of reality that reverberated with me, not necessarily every character’s pained face at Dennis’s actions. Therefore, Dennis’s wealth that “seems to appear without effort” (180) functions for the viewer in a very impactful way: The character may not be real, but all those other elements are.
So I agree with Larkin’s assessment that “Comedy is as important a part of this genre as violence, and the inevitable moral at the end of the story cannot quite overcome the sense of play that takes place before. These films wage a political critique through the language of melodrama … by taking the basic material of reality and charging it with a larger significance, exaggerating it so that the essential moral polarities that underlie everyday life are made clear” (182). After reading this passage, I immediately thought of American reality TV shows, which follow the lives of rich, self-absorbed, totally inept people who have somehow amassed a bunch of wealth without really doing much (the Kardashians, the Real Housewives, etc.). But these programs, while they clearly raise questions about the U.S. 1 percent and how they relate to the rest of the America, don’t expressly push that agenda like Nollywood films do. Still, don’t the two formats share “the admixture of pleasure, even admiration, that often accompanies the portrayal of disgust” (188)? Don’t critics of each worry that both reality TV and Nollywood films fail to “‘represent’ culture and the nation in an objective form” (194)?
Films like “The Master” may not be as slick or glossy as our Ryan Seacrest productions, but I can’t help but think they aren’t really meant to be that moral anyway. If the films “compress people, wider social conflict, and material inequities into relations between people” (171), how can they be objective, when so much of Nigerian society is unstable and in flux?