The Rise of Nigerian Actors in Hollywood and How They are Leading the Industry

by DIANE HAITHMAN | December 30, 2021

Some fun facts about Nigeria: It’s the seventh most populated country in the world, with more than 200 million people. The official language is English but more than 500 dialects are spoken within its borders, including Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. The capital is Abuja, the national anthem is “Arise, O Compatriots” and its biggest national export, as everybody knows, is movie and TV actors.

Actually, its biggest export is oil, but actors aren’t far behind.

If you’ve turned on a TV in the last five years or entered a movie theater, there’s a reasonable chance you’ve encountered a Nigerian or first-generation Nigerian actor from Britain or elsewhere: John Boyega in “Star Wars,” Uzo Aduba in “Orange Is the New Black,” Cynthia Erivo in “Harriet” or Chiwetel Ejiofor, who got nominated for an Oscar for his role in “12 Years a Slave.” There’s virtually no corner of Hollywood where Nigerians haven’t found a foothold, and that includes Chuck Lorre sitcoms (“Bob Hearts Abishola” stars two women of Nigerian descent, one from Nigeria and one first-generation, born in the U.K.).  

Many of the Nigerians coming to America these days have roots in Nollywood, which is a bit like Africa’s Bollywood, except even bigger, with the Nigerian film industry releasing more pictures per year than India and sometimes even the U.S. (although the budgets generally aren’t quite as large). In 2020, Nollywood producied over 2,500 films despite the pandemic, according to Statista. Not surprisingly, Nigeria has proven to be a natural incubator for Hollywood stars, ready to take the screen as the streaming boom has accelerated an appetite for authentic global culture.

But what makes the newest wave of Nigerian infiltration a bit different — what in some ways defines these actors on screen — is that they don’t seem all that interested in playing American, even though many of them excel at doing just that. And they are taking control of their own content by expanding into writing, directing and producing with a focus on authentic, specific stories and culture. 

“The audience is tired of only seeing the world through a white male middle class lens,” noted British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo, who played no less an American icon as Martin Luther King Jr. in 2014’s “Selma.” “You have actors like Idris Elba talking about his Ghanaian heritage and Daniel Kaluuya talking about his Ugandan heritage. These are people who have the mics and are being listened to.” Now it’s Nigeria’s turn.

In that spirit, then, here’s a primer on some of the Nigerian actors who aren’t just holding the mic but delivering mic-dropping performances in both film and TV.

yvonne orji molly
Yvonne Orji (HBO)

YVONNE ORJI

Orji is African royalty, literally — her grandfather was king and her father was a chief of the village where she’s from. Not surprisingly, her family was not at all thrilled when she announced her intention to become an actress and stand-up comedian instead of a doctor or a lawyer.

Still, it turned out to be a solid career move for the 38-year-old. In “Insecure,” which just ended its five-year-run on HBO, she plays Molly Carter, a sharp-witted lawyer who keeps making bad choices with her love life. But it’s on her comedy specials, like HBO’s “Momma I Made It!,” where she truly unleashes her fierce talents, taking aim at the competitive standards of her Nigerian mother. In “Momma” (2020), she says her mother “uses every opportunity to remind me that I was not a doctor: ‘So, you want to prostitute yourself all over the world.’” However, Orji added with a laugh, “that work ethic, that gangster-ness” is what leads so many Nigerians to crush it in entertainment.

Up next, she’s working on an semi-autobiographical series for Disney+ (produced by Oprah Winfrey) called “First Gen,” about a Nigerian clan that immigrates to America, then has a meltdown when the daughter drops out of medical school to become, as the mother disdainfully puts it, “a clown” (see original trailer below).

Orji said her career goal in Hollywood is “to tell nuanced stories from the continent. It’s not (just) the white man who came and colonized us that doesn’t interest me. It’s not: ‘Oh, you know, we were slaves.’ That doesn’t interest me,” she said. “I love stories that don’t require assimilation.”

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DAVID OYELOWO

The “Selma” star made his directorial debut last July with “The Water Man,” a Netflix film about a young boy who leaves home in search of a mythical cure for his mother’s leukemia. Casting himself as the boy’s father, Oyelowo made sure to slip Nigerian references into the story, including snippets of Afrobeat music, popularized in the 1960s and ’70s by Nigerian music star Fela Kuti, playing on the radio in some scenes.

“You are going to see those Nigerian touches — it’s going to permeate everything I do,” the 45-year-old told TheWrap.

And he’s clearly going to be doing a lot. In September, he and his production company, Yoruba Saxon, signed an overall deal for original and unscripted material with ViacomCBS and MTV Entertainment Studios, including a limited series based on the real-life adventures of Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U.S. marshal West of the Mississippi (Oyelowo is playing the lead). He’ll also be appearing in an Apple adaptation of Hugh Howey’s postapocalyptic sci-fi novel “Wool.”

But Oyelowo said he still aspires to find and play distinctly Nigerian roles. “I used to get scripts that would literally describe a character as ‘African,’” he said. “People would be surprised when I said, ‘Well, what kind of African? From where? Which tribe?’ Those days are very much over.”

gina yashere
Getty Images

GINA YASHERE

When “The Big Bang Theory” creator Chuck Lorre came up with the idea for his latest CBS sitcom — an American businessman falls for an African immigrant single mom — he knew he was venturing outside his comfort zone. So, he and his team embarked on a painstaking and meticulous search for a consultant who could help them bridge the cultural gaps that were bound to pop up in “Bob Hearts Abishola.”

“They Googled ‘Nigerian female comics,’” recalled Gina Yashere, 47. “And that’s how they found me. I came on originally as a consultant, then once I got into the room as a producer-writer, I wrote myself into the show.”

Once safely ensconced in the script — as a crazy best friend — she made it her mission to make the show as culturally specific as possible. Although the cast was filed with actors from a broad Black diaspora, she insisted that the sitcom’s main character, Abishola, not only be played by a Nigerian — Folake Olowofoyeku got the part; see below — but that the character itself be a Nigerian. “We’ve never had these chances in Hollywood,” she said. “Speaking Yoruba on primetime — this is an opportunity we’ve never had before.”

The message goes beyond Nigeria, Yashere added: “The show is a love letter to all immigrants working in America.”

Bob Hearts Abishola
Folake Olowofoyeku with Billy Gardell in “Bob Hearts Abishola” (Sonja Flemming/CBS)

FOLAKE OLOWOFOYEKU

Before Folake Olowofoyeku was cast as the lead in “Bob Hearts Abishola,” she’d sometimes find herself in auditions mentally slapping her forehead. “I’ve been in a room with a group of white executives trying to teach me an African accent,” she said with a wry laugh.

The youngest of 20 children — yes, 20 — she grew up Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, where her parents wanted her to join the family business, law and politics. But during a summer vacation in New York, she sneaked away to City College to take acting classes and ended up sticking around, graduating its theater program with honors.

Getting cast as the lead in a Chuck Lorre show – “a freaking legend,” she called the producer — was beyond her wildest career dreams. But she isn’t at all surprised that her fellow countrymen are doing so well in Hollywood. “You’ll find Nigerans everywhere,” she said. “I’m sure there is a Nigerian on the North Pole.”

Olowofoyeku, 38, who is also a musician performing under the moniker The Folake, said she believes the expansion of Nollywood has followed the growth of Afrobeat music. She also plans to expand her influence to launch an art gallery for Nigerian artists in L.A. And, although she’s happy in Lorre’s universe, she is passionate about sci-fi and fantasy and wants to create stories in that realm.

“We have been fed garbage (saying) only a particular type of story sells,” she said. “It’s a global world now, between social media and the ease of travel … it doesn’t make any sense for our images to be uniform or watered down. We want to see variety because variety is what we see out in the streets.”

from The Wrap

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