Nollywood star Genevieve Nnaji — a hypnotizing movie presence both regal and warm — has long been one of the most beloved actresses in Africa, but now she’s branching out as a creative force behind the camera.
With “Lionheart,” a sleepy charmer about a struggling family business, Nnaji not only directed and stars but co-wrote as well, attracting Netflix to make the picture its first original film from Nigeria. (The streaming service purchased it at Toronto’s film festival last year.)
Nnaji plays Adaeze, an ambitious, problem-solving executive at her father’s transport services company who finds herself in an all-too-familiar role for an ultra-capable female in a sexism-driven industry. When her dad (Pete Edochie) takes ill, she’s passed over for advancement, then forced to save the company after she discovers a mountain of hidden debt. (Hovering uncomfortably, of course, are an internal rival and external competition, who both smell blood.)
A modern go-getter thrown into rein-taking partnership with her old-fashioned, shoot-from-the-hip uncle (an amusing Nkem Owoh), Adaeze, in Nnaji’s hands, quickly becomes an appealing 21st century global heroine, an exasperated but honest striver in the peculiar bind of fighting a literal patriarchy while also respecting a legacy she’d like to continue.
Sure, there are the kinds of contrivances and roadblocks one expects from a comic drama of this nature, but “Lionheart” is built more around the abiding sweetness of its message of hope-filled struggle and hard-won enlightenment than the rudiments of a business farce. Like the sincerest wish of any transport company employee, Nnaji cares about the view and the ride.
In English and Igbo with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Available on Netflix