Setting of Black November (the movie): struggle for the Niger Delta

By: Adekunle Adebajo, University of Ibadan

To start with, it should be noted that the ‘setting’ is one of the essential ingredients of a literary work of art (especially prose and drama). This is why it featured at least twice under the classical unities of Aristotle of Stagira (as the unity of time and that of place). Other important elements are the plot structure, theme, characters, dialogue etc.

Summarily, the setting of a piece of literature is the time and place in which the story takes place in which the story takes place. It may also include social statuses, weather, historical period, and details about immediate surroundings. Settings can be real or fictional, or a combination of both elements. It helps to set the mood, influence characters’ behaviour, affect dialogue, foreshadow events, invoke emotional responses, and reflect the societal background of the actors.

It constitutes both spatial and temporal elements. While examples of spatial (or geographical) settings are Lagos, Africa, Atlantis, Utopia, South Africa etc., examples of temporal (or historical) settings are colonial era, 1984, 500 BC, military era etc.

As far as the movie – Black November – is concerned, the setting is not difficult to discover. The events are mostly set in the world’s most populous black nation, Nigeria, after its independence from British imperialism. This was even clearly stated in the prelude to the movie which provided key facts about the country which are of relevance. More particularly however, the scenes were unveiled inevitably in Niger Delta region of the country (also explicitly stated in the introduction); ‘inevitably’ because the entirety of the movie, from the beginning to the end, is about the inhabitants, individuals and bodies within this environment.

The rich culture of the people is very evident from their language, peculiar dressing style, oratorical prowess, and in-depth knowledge and use of profound proverbs (such as, ‘our people say the owl never flies by sunlight unless it is pursued by an aggrieved hunter’.) The audience could also easily appreciate the patriarchal nature of the society, especially as the popular impression was only men could contribute to discussions of societal significance. When Ebiere sought to give her take on the issue respecting how compensation should be given to the bereaved, an immediate retort came that has she no man to speak for her family. In stronger terms, the village head had said: this is not a matter for women!

We are shown the oil hub of South-South Nigeria, the city of Warri in Delta state at its worst. We are shown the calamity which has befallen the once-peaceful environment, its fauna, flora and natives; a calamity which ironically is hugely profitable to the government of the day and the multinational oil companies with which it shares the same bed cover. It is indeed a classic case of ‘one man’s food is another’s poison’.

We are shown poverty, abject poverty. At the beginning earlier referred to, viewers were reminded that 90% of the country’s population lives on less than $2 every day. And then the storyline proceeded to bare some of the constituent members of this massive 90%; but a reasonable person would not expect that the illustration of this fact will be grounded in one of the ‘richest’ soils in the world, a land which plays host to a most rare and much needed economic asset – crude oil. The people have wealth but are extremely poor. They are a quintessential embodiment of the proverbial son of a butcher who constantly resorts to the consumption of raw bones. Disturbingly, this setting is true. It is a depiction of the daily reality of the actual peoples of this region.

We are equally shown series of evidence of enormous environmental degradation and all sorts of pollution (air, oil, land and water). There are regular oil spills and incessant gas flaring. Vast tracts of agricultural lands are laid to waste. The land is not suitable for farming and the rivers are not fit for fishing. Toxic substances from oil exploration activities have led to a holocaust of both aquatic and terrestrial life. And of course, the humans, being a critical part of the ecosystem and food chain, are hit very heavily. Their standard of living has plummeted over the years since their means of livelihood was forcefully hijacked, and they have been pushed towards hatred for the system, and hatred for their selfish leaders who do not allow wealth from the black gold to trickle down to the grassroots.

The people of the region, as represented in the movie, are part of the world’s 75% without access to clean water. We see that while a lady is busy bathing herself inside a particular river, another kid is gleefully passing excreta inside it and a mother nonetheless approaches the same water body to get water for her baby to drink. One can only imagine the plethora of infirmities transmissible and contractible through this singular channel.

As far as the temporal setting of the play is concerned, we are aware that it covers the military regime in Nigeria. Ebiere was mentioned to have been born during the sway of the junta. And of course, even the name of the movie was derived from one of the deep scars left by the jackboots. This is because the ‘November’ therein is intended to represent the month of November (in 1995) when the person of Ken Saro-Wiwa was unjustifiably and unjustly executed under the administration of General Sani Abacha. Likewise, after Ebiere’s return and the community planned to protest their predicament in Abuja, Tamuno told them their intelligence reports say they had conspired to overthrow the military government. Thus, it is certain that the movie is situated in the post-independence and pre-21st century military period in the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Another place briefly and further used to explore the theme of the movie is Los Angeles, in California, the United States of America. Here, some of the militants had gone hoping to strong-arm the government into backing out of its plan to execute Ebiere (like it was done to ‘Wiwa in 1995) through the leadership of the Western Oil company. Sadly, their efforts were rendered futile and the oncoming tragedy could not be averted.

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