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Nollywood has a new action hero. His name is Tobi Bakre

Nollywood, long known for low-budget soapy romcoms, is now delivering action dramas. One star has shone the brightest.

By Wilfred Okiche

With lead roles in two major motion pictures – the box office smash Brotherhood and the Amazon Prime Video original Gangs of Lagos – Tobi Bakre has stealthily emerged as the most exciting actor to hit the big screens in a long while.

In Brotherhood, the 2022 action drama that finished its run as the sixth highest-grossing Nollywood film of the modern era at the Nigerian box office, a star was born.

In the film’s climactic scene, the protagonist played by Bakre, surprises a backstabbing murderous comrade attempting an escape. The camera pans in on Bakre, soaking wet from the rain outside, his face contorted into a mask of revulsion, a rifle in his right hand. Before the villain can utter a word in defence, Bakre’s avenging hero fires angrily. He does not miss.

Conjuring an adrenaline rush, this scene – an audience favourite – recalls iconic moments embodied by action legends like Arnold Schwarzenegger and India’s Shah Rukh Khan. And just like these idols, Bakre puts in plenty of commitment to the part.

He tells Al Jazeera, “There was another scene where my character jumps off a bridge and I really wanted to do it. The producers said ‘No way’ and we had a stunt double do it. But I was ready to do it.”

High-octane action stunts aren’t the first scenes that come to mind when considering Nollywood, the bustling Nigerian film industry that has long been recognised as the world’s third largest in terms of volume output.

But times are changing. Simple moralistic stories, ultra-low budgets and dodgy production outputs that go straight to video? That was your mama’s Nollywood.

After decades of growth marked by homegrown commercial success plus the enthusiastic support of a blossoming diasporic audience, a new generation of filmmakers raised on cinema from Hollywood and European arthouses is beginning to find its voice.

These attempts have attracted significant investment from the major streaming platforms including Netflix and Amazon. With more resources to play with, filmmakers can now dabble in several exciting genres with an idea to reconfigure the idea of the Nollywood film.

Nollywood’s direct-to-video era was notable for creating a bevy of glamorous movie stars. After that central structure collapsed in the noughties and the industry moved to cinemas as the major exhibition format, it became increasingly difficult to mint genuine movie stars who could be trusted to light up the box office.

Cinemas hold a promise of prestige and profitability, but the reality has been underwhelming. Twenty years later, cinemas have been slow to scale and remain concentrated in major urban areas. The rest of the country still depends on television, DVDs and the internet to watch their Nollywood content.

This fragmented ecosystem essentially killed the pipeline for producing movie stars.

There have been several contenders, but no one has come closest to seizing the attention of the culture like Tobi Bakre, the 29-year-old actor and former reality television star whose commanding performances in two back-to-back blockbusters released in different formats have come to define the idea of the action star, a phenomenon not yet witnessed in Nollywood, at least at this level.

“I had the luxury of taking acting classes that were centred on building that character,” Bakre says of his work in Gangs of Lagos. “My character doesn’t speak much so in that way I had to do more showing and less talking. We created a backstory for him; his challenges, fears, what drives him and knowing all of this made it easier. That was the first time I really got into it as an actor. I became this person and I could tell I was different.”

In both films, Bakre brings a smouldering intensity that helps him sell big dramatic beats as well as a physicality that puts him squarely in the leading man bracket. There have been Nollywood stars who have done action scenes – Saint Obi, J T Tom West- but in Bakre, a confluence of talent, knockout good looks and charisma to spare has been helped immensely by a knack for picking the right projects.

Bakre tells Al Jazeera about carving a niche as the action star for the times, “I have always been that guy, the fit guy for most of my life, so it comes second nature to me. However, the stunts are the least challenging parts for me. The dramatic parts of acting are what I would love to hone and get better at and with every project I am working on this.”

In terms of building a solidly promising body of work, Bakre has had plenty of help from Jade Osiberu, the influential filmmaker who produced Brotherhood and directed him in Gangs of Lagos. Their partnership, which has taken the shape of a mentor-muse relationship, goes back to 2019 when Osiberu cast him in a small role in Sugar Rush, a comedy that she co-wrote and produced.

“There was a seriousness with which he took this playful role even to the point of physical injury while running during one of the scenes. I have encountered a lot of actors but can count on one hand that level of seriousness,” she told Al Jazeera.

Bakre’s co-star, Bimbo Ademoye, who has shared plenty of scenes with him in films like Sugar Rush and Gangs of Lagos, adds via chat, “When it comes to work ethic, I would say Tobi can give Beyoncé a run for her money. I thought I was hardworking until I met him. That young man is energy itself.”

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, to banker parents, Bakre followed a family tradition and studied banking and finance at university before quitting a comfortable banking career to pursue his artistic dreams. As a child, his creative instincts led him to participate in art and drawing competitions. He even started a side hustle as a professional photographer during his time in the corporate world.

Bakre’s big break came in 2018 when he participated in the mammoth reality television show Big Brother Naija and finished in third place. Big Brother Naija’s central position in Nigerian culture – it reaches almost every home – means that participants easily become household names. The show’s intense “Stan” (obsessive, celebrity worshipping) culture rivals the film and music industries when it comes to creating stars.

During his time on Big Brother Naija, Bakre’s laid-back, playboy persona attracted countless fans who supported him to the finals. Many fans point to Bakre’s most memorable incident in Big Brother’s house as a source of pride. In the face of verbal provocation from a fellow housemate and former romantic interest, Bakre showed considerable restraint.

These fans have been loyal, following Bakre – now a married father of one toddler and expecting another – as he pursues new opportunities.

At the recent Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards in Lagos, the fans came through again, voting enthusiastically as Bakre trounced more established thespians to win the coveted best actor in a drama trophy for his role in Brotherhood.

“I am here again next year for this same award. We are only just getting started.” Bakre declared while accepting the trophy.

The fans were also key factors in guiding Brotherhood to a solid 328 million naira ($424,683) gross at the domestic box office.

Amazon recently listed Gangs of Lagos as the ninth “top travelling” non-English language original in the history of the service, prompting possibilities of an international crossover career for Bakre and other talent involved.

“He plays the action heroes well. He likes to do his stunts himself and knows how to build his body physically. But he also has range and without a doubt, I can see him crossing over to Hollywood eventually,” predicts Fiyin Gambo, a filmmaker who directed Bakre in the 2022 crime drama, The Blood Covenant.

As the industry struggles to create new stars capable of drawing viewers in, many producers have turned to reality television and influencers who at least can boast of huge followings on social media. Bakre has more than two million followers on Instagram and almost 500,000 on Twitter.

“Tobi’s career is the best-case scenario for transitioning reality TV stars or influencers to proper movie stardom.” Daniel Okechukwu, who runs the Inside Nollywood blog tells Al Jazeera. “He comes with an army of fans already so producers like that. But he is also a serious person who takes the work seriously and has been privileged to work with serious filmmakers like Jade Osiberu.”

Osiberu confirms this, reflecting on her experience working with Bakre. “He is not necessarily about the glamour and is not looking to be just the pretty boy. Neither does he want to be famous for the sake [of it]. That energy when it arrives on a film set can be distracting. Tobi is a thorough hard worker who is very eager and, as a director, those are the kind of collaborations you are interested in.”

Bakre is excited by the kind of reception his film career has generated but is careful to still consider himself a work in progress. He says, “We haven’t seen something like this in a while in Nollywood, and I totally enjoy being the guy that is bringing it to life. It is great that people want to see more, and I am here to give them more.”


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