Director Dare Olaitan’s Knock Out Blessing (2018), is nothing less than a meditation on rape culture.
In an early sequence in Knock Out Blessing—an immensely entertaining blend of action, comedy, and political critique—an inexperienced sex worker, Oby (Linda Ejiofor), bites a client after he refuses to use a condom and tries to take her by force. Her procurer, Madam Tina (Mary Kowo), is, however, characteristically unconcerned about Oby’s wellbeing; this madam cares only about money—about the client’s refusal to pay. In a nod to Zeb Ejiro’s Nollywood classic Domitilla: The Story of a Prostitute (1996), Olaitan shows a group of young sex workers sharing an apartment, their living quarters cramped but suffused by the high spirits that they maintain despite the oppressive, often punitive attentions of Madam Tina. In a subsequent scene, the put-upon Oby is forced to perform sexual favors at gunpoint, in an SUV full of various other weapons.
Enter Blessing (Ade Laoye): clad in shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt that shows off her muscular arms, the butch Blessing hears Oby’s screams and hastens to rescue this victim of sexual assault. The aptly named Blessing, with her impressive biceps, is thus introduced as a savior—a protector and avenger of victimized women. The film that bears her name is pervaded by cruel capitalist demands. “When did prostitutes start having a closing time?” asks a disgruntled man after a sex worker, Hannah (Meg Otanwa), tells him that she’s “off the clock.” Blessing knocks him out when he gets rough with Hannah; the two women steal his car and drive to Hannah’s sister’s house. Married and militantly Christian, the sister doesn’t want them there—Hannah is, after all, a prostitute, her troubles the result (or so the sister self-righteously believes) of her having failed to find a husband. So the escapees flee to Hannah’s friend Dagogo (Bucci Franklin), a smuggler, who has carts upon carts of (stolen) Coca-Cola bottles in his office.
Knock Out Blessing is set during election season, and Dagogo convinces the girls to rob those running for office—men who, while on the campaign trail, troll the streets for prostitutes. The plan works: Oby lures these politicians to her hotel room, where the buff Blessing materializes to knock them out. The women then take money, watches, and other items from these unconscious bodies—a grift that is at once a response to the sexual entitlement of “big men” and a means of obtaining what these political figures, with all their talk of “giving back” to local communities, actually owe their constituents.
Oby, Hannah, and Blessing do not, however, plan to rob politicians for the rest of their lives. Yet (in an amusing nod to the Hollywood crime films that partly inspired Olaitan, including The Godfather Part III), just as they are about to quit, Dagogo convinces them to pull off “one last job”—the most difficult and dangerous grift yet, but the one that stands to be by far the most profitable. (“After that, it’s America!” Dagogo declares, invoking his earlier promise to turn the three women into wealthy expatriates.) This “last job” is a heist with unexpected political consequences, becoming a matter of national security: the women unwittingly gain possession of a drive containing footage of the (fictional) Nigerian president, Doherty (Kayode Freeman), visiting a native doctor (played by Charles Etubeibi), who forces the leader to fuck a goat in order to secure reelection. The president is thus caught on camera in a compromising position—with a goat! When an intrepid TV reporter gets her hands on the footage, she promptly uploads it and broadcasts it live.
Olaitan deftly interweaves overheard voices—an audio montage of television watchers responding to the broadcast. Some think it’s a hoax perpetrated by the president’s political enemies; others are concerned about the moral implications of the broadcast itself (one woman is heard saying, “How dare you broadcast such a thing when children are watching? Don’t you understand that you are hurting these children’s minds?”); “I thought it was a Nollywood movie,” says one man; “Haven’t you heard of Photoshop?” asks another, questioning the footage’s legitimacy. This cacophony of contradictory reception practices holds considerable thematic weight: what begins as an apparent expression of faith in broadcast television’s capacity to effect political change—to provide a whistle-blowing function, to hold power to account—evolves into something far more cynical, as countless viewers question what they have seen, refusing to invest in the indexical promise of mediated images, skeptical of new technologies of recording, post-production, and playback, and all too aware of various high-profile hoaxes. (Others, such as the concerned parent, simply prefer to moralize by way of punishing the messenger.)
Like Olaitan’s previous film, the remarkable Ojukokoro (2016), Knock Out Blessing is a non-linear narrative, fractured in the manner of Pulp Fiction, one of the director’s touchstones. A segment of the film, entitled “Blessing’s Story,” tackles the titular character’s complex backstory. Blessing’s parents, it turns out, are entirely out of the picture; she doesn’t even know where they are. Luckily, she’s taken care of by her baba (or grandfather, played by Gbenga Titiloye), a former boxer who teaches her how to punch. (He even shows her grainy black-and-white footage of his old fights, offering an instructive play-by-play.) Blessing’s schoolmates often bully her; one accuses her of being “half boy, half girl”; another simply calls her ugly.
Blessing is almost raped by Akin (Abayomi Alvin), who bullies her mercilessly when surrounded by his rowdy friends but who, when alone with her, showers her with compliments. Blessing, fighting back and escaping Akin’s sexual advances, eventually runs away. Her grandfather warns her, “If you run away from men like that, they will just do it to somebody else. You have to teach them a lesson.” But Blessing, having learned from the best, understands that her punch is potentially deadly. Nevertheless, her baba gives her permission to use it on Akin. Later, when the mercurial Akin pulls a knife on her, she evades the blade and punches him. Akin ends up in a coma, from which he does not recover; he eventually dies, and a vengeful gang murders baba, who has hidden Blessing. Before dying, the old man tells her to visit his former boxing partner, Abdul, for help getting her to the major boxing tournament for which Blessing has tirelessly trained. Fleeing the murderous mob, she arrives at Abdul’s address only to learn that he died earlier in the year. What follows is an odyssey of streetwalking—an homage of sorts to Old Nollywood’s penchant for depicting characters who pound the pavement in search of work, as in a famous long take in Chico Ejiro’s Shame (1996). Eventually, Blessing finds an unlocked car in which to sleep for the night, and it is at this point that she hears Oby’s screams—the very screams that open the film.
Knock Out Blessing represents a major leap forward for the talented director of Ojukokoro. There are marvelous comic touches: the man whose car the women steal—a self-styled “big man”—can’t handle the fact that he was knocked out by a “mere” girl, and comes comically apart. His wife, breathless, shows up at the police station, assuming that her husband has been beaten by men; when she learns that he was, in fact, the victim of “a gang of women,” she manages to read between the lines: she knows he’s been looking for prostitutes again.
Knock Out Blessing is also a visual marvel, boasting breathtaking cinematography by KC Obiajulu. Particularly impressive are the shots of Blessing in training, punching a bag under the bridge at Abeokuta, and the gorgeous panoramic shots of Owu Village. Seun Opabisi’s editing deftly intersperses past and present, culminating in a nail-biting climax that vividly demonstrates that Dare Olaitan remains a master of the cliffhanger ending.
Knock Out Blessing screens at the prestigious film festival NollywoodWeek Paris on Saturday, May 11.