Full of grace, glamour and the giggles, Mary Remmy Njoku and Mercy Aigbe Gentry, who’ve just finished playing sisters on screen, sat down with us on the eve of the biggest Nollywood gala London has ever seen!
They told us about their best times in Nollywood but also about their frustrations. In light of the recent conversations within Nollywood about issues of sexual harassment and gender inequality, I kicked off the conversation with questions about the struggles they face, particularly as women within the industry.
They had plenty to say, having both moved into production after establishing themselves as actors, the bar was already high and the expectations plenty. Yet it was not all smooth sailing.
It was the push I needed at that point… And it’s still driving me.
Mary, actress, CEO of the award-winning ROK Studios and wife of Jason Njoku, founder of iROKO, recalled one instance in particular that gave her the drive to get to where she is today. It continues to spur her to help ROK reach the highest of heights, an incident she then referred to at the ROK Gala in front of prominent industry professionals and fans alike:
‘I remember approaching a very big Nollywood actor when I started producing. I approached him with a script and told him that I wanted to feature him in my movie… He laughed so hard and said, in his words. “You these small, small actresses who want to push your career in acting, and you’re relying on the big actors to help you do that. Just go away, you’re not big enough. When you’re big enough, come back”.
‘For me, that was the point, that was it. He was a godsend. I needed that push at that time I just thought yeah I will be big enough, I’ll be bigger than enough. It was the push I needed at that point… And it’s still driving me.’
That was three years ago, fast forward to our interview and the gala, the actor in question is not present. Maybe he was just late (most people were)! Nonetheless, today ROK boasts of over 150 movies and twelve drama series and counting. But if this was not enough, in this time these women have gone above and beyond to produce higher quality content than Nollywood is used to while balancing busy home lives.
Sometimes the two even collide. Actor, film-maker and businesswoman, Mercy recalls filming ROK’s up and coming Single Ladies series:
‘I was on set every day for fifty-two days straight, with my son! At the same time as acting, I own my own fashion business and boutique. It’s a whole lot of work trying to balance everything, film-making, acting and taking care of the house… [The perception] in Nigeria specifically about women in film, is that they are never going to be married or stay married because they are always busy flying up and down.’
A point that returns to mind when Mercy mentions that one of her favourite actors outside of Nollywood happens to be Angelina Jolie. Mary and Mercy recall how the idea that they could only chase a career on the side was reinforced throughout their careers and is still spoken of to this day, despite the many advances women like themselves have made.
Staying to true to their roots and building strong and loving families remain important for both women.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Despite recalling how parents and relatives treated their dramatic pursuits as hobbies, preferring for them to pursue more traditional routes such as law or medicine, or in the case of Mercy pursue her HND in Accounting. Things are indeed changing. Nollywood now commands such economic and cultural power on the African continent that the ROK CEO’s nieces now ‘want to be just like Auntie Mary’.
It seems that on top of their busy schedules, staying to true to their roots and building strong and loving families remain important for both women. Nothing says this more than the pride with which Mary spoke about her favourite production of all time, her ‘breakthrough’ and first ever piece as a producer, Festac Town. Why? Because not only was this a 120-cast series, but Festac is where she was born, a series she wrote depicting flashbacks of her own childhood and coming of age. Not only did she write and produce the series, she was seven months pregnant at the time.
Balancing womanhood, Nollywood and entrepreneurship isn’t only possible, it looks like a lot of fun!
So in spite of being disrespected, and under scrutiny not only for their business practices but also their home lives, balancing womanhood, Nollywood and entrepreneurship isn’t only possible, it looks like a lot of fun!
With plans to make sure that their Nollywood stories reflect the appetites of its fans at home and abroad, we can expect content that features the stories of the diaspora in a big way very soon. As Mary and Mercy emphasise, content is king and while their passion drives them, nothing can stop them.