“My mission is to change the way the world sees African women.”
Director Nicole Amarteifio is building a TV empire in Accra with the goal of redefining how the world sees African women.On a muggy Saturday in July, actress Joselyn Dumas is pacing the set of The Republic in Ghana’s capital city, Accra, trying to decide how to hold her purse. The director, Nicole Amarteifio, wearing fuchsia Nikes and a gray shirt reading Black Girls Are from the Future, nods as her lead actress begins to channel a woman thousands of miles away. “You know who I see in this scene?” Dumas asks. “Viola Davis in How to Get Away With Murder. I see it! You know, this is how she holds her bag… ” With that, Dumas stomps off, bag clenched in her fist. At a bend in the hallway, she pauses, rethinking her approach—maybe her character is more of an Olivia Pope, the lead character played by Kerry Washington on Scandal. Amarteifio agrees, and this time when Dumas walks, she swishes back and forth, all hips and pouty lips. “No one spends this much time shooting a pilot,” says Mawuli Gavor, an actor on the show. “Nicole does every take until it’s perfect.”
Amarteifio has reason to aim for perfection—television executives in the U.S. and millions of viewers worldwide are watching. Known as the “Shonda Rhimes of Ghana”—a nickname referencing the powerhouse creator and showrunner behind hits like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder—Amarteifio is a symbol for the future of African entertainment. Best known for An African City, the 2014 web-based series that set the girlfriends-navigate-love-and-career premise of Sex and the City in Accra, the 34-year-old is countering the stereotype that often portrays African women as a poor, tragic monolith. “I’m really trying to change that narrative,” Amarteifio says. “To show a representation of black women that you rarely see.”
So far, her efforts have been rewarded. The first season of An African City has drawn the attention of the media and more than 3 million YouTube viewers to date, and the second, which aired on the fee-based video platform VHX, made $20,000 in its first month (viewers pay $20 each to watch the season). Now, Amarteifio hopes to build on that success with her latest series, The Republic, which again centers on a gutsy woman: this time, a political fixer (like Pope on Scandal) who takes on cases inspired by real-life headlines in Accra. The pilot episode premieres this fall on VHX, and Amarteifio is shopping the series around to American networks and streaming services, including Netflix, where she first pitched the idea. If Amarteifio is successful in placing the show, The Republic stands to become the highest-profile African series to date, bringing her stereotype-busting characters to a global audience.
Amarteifio may be one of Africa’s better-known directors, but she’s hardly without competition. In Nigeria, where the film industry has been dubbed “Nollywood,” producers have been churning out movies for decades. The industry is now the country’s second-largest after agriculture, employing around 1 million people and pumping out thousands of films a year. In 2009, Nigeria surpassed the U.S. to become the second-largest film-producing country in the world. (India’s mega-prolific film industry tops the list.) South Africa’s “Joziwood,” founded in Johannesburg, has contributed $200 million to the country’s GDP. Its biggest claim to fame is District 9, a 2009 sci-fi thriller filmed locally and directed by a native South African, which was nominated for Best Picture at the 2010 Academy Awards. But booming or not, African film centers aren’t known for glamorous sets or million-dollar movies. Entertainment is seen as a cheap commodity, with films and shows made on tight budgets, often by people working nearly for free.
Ghana’s burgeoning film scene, called “Gollywood,” is the continent’s third-largest, but it’s tiny in comparison, producing about 100 films a year. Funding is a constant challenge, with producers rarely able to secure money for projects or to get TV stations to pay to air them when they do. Station executives more often opt to buy inexpensive and reliable fare from abroad, like telenovelas from Mexico and soap operas from India, which helps explain why African shows hardly ever penetrate outside the continent—and why Netflix’s arrival there earlier this year is a game changer.
Founded in the U.S. in 1997, Netflix began its international push in 2010 when it launched in Canada. By the end of 2015, it was streaming in more than 60 countries, including all of Latin America and Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and its first Asian country, Japan. The additional countries grew Netflix’s subscriber base from 20 million in 2011 to more than 69 million in 2015. Its global hits so far include Netflix’s first Spanish-language original series, Club de Cuervos, a soccer-themed dramedy that is expected to return for a second season this fall, and the company’s first foreign-made Netflix Original, Brahman Nahman, a raunchy comedy that premiered in July from the Indian director Q. (Eventually Netflix wants to make “the best Bollywood movie that’s ever been produced,” CEO Reed Hastings recently told an Indian publication.)
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