Biyi Bandele, a writer, filmmaker, and theater artist, died at the age of 54, shocking the West African arts world where he was a creative icon who brought traditional Nigerian stories to a global audience.
He was the creator and co-director of the popular Netflix TV series Blood Sisters, as well as the author of the coming-of-age war novel Burma Boy. He was also recognized for translating Nigerian literary masterpieces, including a film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s epic Half of a Yellow Sun and a stage adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. He had recently finished Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman, a film based on Wole Soyinka’s famous drama.
Biyi was a serial storyteller and Renaissance man who experimented with various artistic mediums to communicate his vision and voice. He began at an early age, receiving his first literary award at the age of 14.
He worked relentlessly and enthusiastically for the following four decades, becoming one of the most visible and great storytellers of his time. He understood how to work across media, making Nigerian stories relevant while elevating Nigerian culture and allowing it to play out in global popular culture.
Biyi was a Nigerian (inter)national who was raised in northern Nigeria, educated in southern Nigeria, and lived in the United Kingdom. Or, as he would put it, an insider-outsider. Despite his international renown, he shamed a good number of Nigerian creatives with his willingness to mentor others.
He was always willing to help whoever he met, whether they were new or experienced artists, industry aspirants, or scholars like myself. Biyi mentioned in our last correspondence in May that he was working on a new book with a tight deadline. He was known for being a hard worker who was tough and determined. His extraordinarily hectic filmmaking calendar was completely booked till December.
A true African thinker with a fierce spirit of independence and creativity, Biyi was driven by a love for culture and story.
An indication of Biyi’s impact as a writer – and the vacuum he leaves in the literary space – was a tribute published in the online literary mag Brittle Paper. In it 100 African writers celebrate his life and work. Adichie writes:
We’ve lost a real star. Too (unbearably) soon. A humane human. A true artist.
Biyi rose to prominence with his 2007 novel Burma Boy, a story of African troops fighting for the British colonizers against Japan during WWII. Burma Boy was a novel that Biyi had long wanted to write. It was based on his father’s and his father’s friends’ accounts of their experiences during the Burma war.
Burma Boy succeeds despite being criticized for not holding together especially well as a novel. It makes a significant contribution to the African history archive by providing a living African viewpoint on the struggle. Biyi punctuates the severity of his story with African proverbs, anecdotes, and idioms, as is typical of notable Nigerian tales.
He focuses on ordinary, genuine people and their actual experiences in this and his previous published works, The Street (1999) and The Sympathetic Undertaker and Other Dreams (1991).
Biyi is most known for his work on television, but he made his directorial debut in 2013 with the multi-million dollar budget film Half of a Yellow Sun. He had extraordinary talent and demonstrated the ability to get excellent performances from his cast.
The film had several problems, including delayed production and censorship conflicts in Nigeria, poor reviews from reviewers, piracy, and a low return on investment despite establishing a box office record in Nigeria. Nonetheless, Biyi had shown his command in adaptations and historical reproductions.
He had previously staged Achebe’s classic work Things Fall Apart and released his own plays. He created a documentary on Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the legendary Nigerian singer.
Biyi made a number of successful TV dramas. He directed the 2013 season of the MTV drama Shuga, which chronicles the real-life struggles of young Africans.
His glossy 2015 film Fifty explores the many binaries faced by middle-aged women everywhere, but especially in Lagos. Here he again highlights the multifaceted yet beautiful Nigerian megacity, the place where he was again working and where he would end up dying.
Working tirelessly, he co-directed one of Nollywood’s most sensational miniseries, Blood Sisters (2022). According to my analysis, it’s a story that x-rays the anguish of gender inequality while extolling sisterhood and challenging taboos. Blood Sisters drew global audiences and within a week of its release, it was on the top 10 most-watched shows on Netflix.
The Final Works
Biyi had lofty plans for the future – stories to write and films to create. He is deeply missed, especially with mounting anticipation for the Netflix and EbonyLife production Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman. Billed to premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, it is scheduled for release in September and could yet be his finest adaptation.
Based on the play by the Nobel Prize-winning Soyinka it explores true historical events. For a continent and a Nigerian society becoming increasingly spread across the diaspora, there is a continual yearning for a (re)connection to roots and heritage, Elesin Oba will be an attraction. For students who find the play hard to read, and I was once in this category, Biyi’s version will provide a pleasurable alternative. He will help keep alive and relevant the great works he adapted.
Biyi mentioned other works in the making. He was going to adapt Burma Boy into a film. He reportedly spoke of a new book billed for publication in 2023.
We know that in Death and the King’s Horseman, Elesin sacrifices himself for the safe and onward journey of the Oba (king). What we do not know is why Biyi left just before the unveiling of this monumental recreation. He will be remembered as a tremendously talented writer and filmmaker, a hard worker, mentor, and Mensch. His creative works now outlive him, engraving his name in the sands of time.
Ezinne Ezepue, a lecturer, at the University of Nigeria is on a George Forster Early career postdoctoral research programme funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.