I recommend the film, although this is not a review. What is offered below are some explanations—which you have the freedom to reject—that I believe might help you comprehend the movie.
By Adeleke Adeeko
Up till mid-19th century, several of the Aláàfin’s (the Ọ̀yọ́ king’s) closest family members, aides, advisers, and ministers had to commit “honorable suicides” on the last day of the month-long funeral rites. These aides, it is believed, provide the king the level of personal service he needs to function adequately in the ancestral realm into which he is translated at death. Politically, which is to say realistically, the deaths allow the in-coming ruler to assume office with his own trusted officials and govern without worrying about the ambitions of officers of the previous regime.
Late in 1944, Ṣiyanbọ́lá Ládìgbòlù, the then political, spiritual, and cultural leader of Ọ̀yọ́ kingdom passed away (or “ascended into the rafters,” in a Yorùbá idiom). At the time of Ládìgbòlù’s death, close to six decades of Britain’s formal colonial subjugation of Ọ̀yọ́ kingdom, only few of those who traditionally die with the king, prominent among which is the Master of the Stables, are still required to do so.
At the end of Ládìgbòlù’s funeral, his Master of the Stables, Jìnádù, refused to kill himself as tradition required in spite of his having enjoyed all the benefits of the office. Jìnádù’s oldest son found his father’s scandalous behavior insufferable and took his own life. This is the historical event that inspired Soyinka’s play on which the film is based. The events and the furor they caused have also been the subjec of two plays in Yorùbá language: Dúró Ládiípọ̀’s “Ọba Wàjà” and Moses Ọláìyá’s “Abọ́bakú.” (The latter is a comedy.) To better understand the trouble created by the king’s final rites in Soyinka’s play and in Biyi Bandele’s film adaptation of it, some of the assumptions that give meaning to the practice is summarized below.
In the Yorùbá society created in the play and film world, there are three interrelated universes of existence: the ancestral plane of the dead, the earth of the living, and the unformed world of the unborn. The human being at birth is believed to be an “incarnation” of returning ancestors, the living person is an ancestor in waiting, and the ancestors minister unseen to the living and the unborn at the same time. The living appeases the ancestors through propitiation and brings the unborn to the world with the physical labor of procreation.
The movement through the three states is marked culturally in rites of passage like naming ceremonies, funerals, and ancestral masking festivals. The most elaborate of the rituals suggest that the passages may themselves be a “fourth stage” as Soyinka himself suggests in his Myth, Literature and the African World View. In that space, THE WILL TO TRANSFORM INTO ANOTHER STATE AND KEEP THE COSMOS RUNNING SMOOTHLY IS TESTED AND PROVED. The transition space and time simultaneously connect and distinguish the states of being. The activities that occur there, only IMAGINABLE to conscious humans, ensure that the living, the unborn, and the ancestors take their places in the order of things. That transition state is full of self-doubt, a longing for the familiar, and a distrust of the unknown. The great difficulties of negotiating this state of transition is expressed in the Yorùbá proverb that asks “when you tell the aged one approaching heaven to greet your kinsfolk over there for you, do you think the journey is willingly made?”
However, responsible individuals have to turn the corners of transition successfully, assume their rightful ancestral status, and keep looking after the interests of others in the cycle. In other words, halting transition is catastrophic—tragic in theatrical terms. As it is stated in divination verses, crops will cease to mature, women will cease to menstruate, semen will dry up in men’s genital sacs, roosters will mistake bullets for corn, goats will swallow knives thinking they are yams, etc, etc. It makes sense, therefore, that the terrible STASIS thus threatened must be combated with the exertion of will.
In my reading of Soyinka’s interpretation, that is the task Elesin fails to confront as, and when, due.
Professor Adeeko writes from Ohio State University