To an entire generation of Nigerian millennials, Ego Boyo was their first encounter with onscreen celebrity. Three decades after her first grand appearance on the scene, the Nigerian actress, filmmaker, activist and philanthropist has lived several lives in one, wearing each phase confidently.
As the star of the popular early ’90s television series, Checkmate, Boyo’s celebrity predated her success in the direct-to-video film industry that would come to be called Nollywood. In Checkmate, Boyo, who played an ambitious and resourceful young heiress, was on primetime national television every week, at a time when television was the central medium for distributing entertainment content.
“Her onscreen career predates Nollywood,” Rejoice Abutsa, a film and media studies scholar at Cornell University, tells Al Jazeera. “It is a career that has survived the gendered, industrial and technological shifts that have transformed Nollywood. In making the transition from acting to producing, Boyo went beyond performing in roles that were already determined for her, staking her capital in the field and ensuring that she too could determine the type of stories that were told and how they were told.”
Nollywood’s growth has favoured quantity and speed in filmmaking, but with her three-decade career, Boyo, now 55, has favoured slower production. As a producer, Boyo has assumed a leadership role that her peers have said often points new directions to where the industry should be headed. Her films, ranging from 1996’s family drama, Violated, to 2019’s, The Ghost and the House of Truth, have been industry leaders, winning multiple awards.
This commitment to artistic excellence has not always translated to popularity but as Boyo tells Al Jazeera, she wouldn’t have it any other way, “I normally start with the story. The script has to get me excited not because everyone else is doing it but because I am interested in it. I ensure that the script is where I need it to be and start to visualize who I want from crew to cast.”
This pre-production process can often last for years, during which Boyo’s peers might have churned out multiple titles in quick succession.
But Boyo remains committed to a detailed development process,
“The criticism I get is that we take too much time, but I like that process because then when I make the film, it is something I have thought through,” she tells Al Jazeera. “I would have assembled a team that is committed to the project, and we know exactly what we want to achieve. I know people have other processes, but this has worked for me. If I can get it to a place that is as close to perfect as I can then that is very satisfying for me.”
Her work has the accolades to back her up.
The Ghost and the House of Truth, a contemplative drama about forgiveness and redemption won awards for director Akin Omotoso and leading lady Kate Henshaw and was named best world film at the Urbanworld film festival in New York City where it premiered.
Even her second outing as a solo producer – the little-seen, 30 Days, about a crew of skilled female assassins – punished boundaries. The film had an oral sex scene considered risqué for its 2007 arrival time.
The 2002 romantic comedy Keeping Faith essentially changed the way Nollywood approached romance and helped launch an aspirational romantic comedy sub-industry. Boyo also championed innovative publicity campaigns for some of these films, hosting themed, glamorous big-screen premieres even when the industry had no theatres to support the films.
In 2017, after plans to adapt Sefi Atta’s radio play, The Engagement, fell through, Boyo refocused and made A Hotel Called Memory, an experimental film with zero dialogue and very few box office prospects.
Mildred Okwo, a childhood friend who directed, 30 Days, and has cast Boyo in two films considered Boyo’s legacy, “Ego has shaped Nollywood considerably even though the industry never really stops to figure out the people that have shaped it. Many years from now someone who is objective will do a survey and they will find Ego’s films will be among the very important ones. Each one of her films has moved the industry forward in significant ways. If you track the progression, you can see someone trying to get better.”
Shuaibu Husseini, an industry veteran and jury member of the Africa Film Academy Awards agrees.”She is one person who invests in production values and ensures every aspect is taken care of,” he says. “She breaks out of the usual Nollywood model of quick, microwave filmmaking and takes her time to make films that are critically acclaimed. We still reference, Violated, and, A Hotel Called Memory, today for their quality and substance.”
Ego was born Nwakaego Nnamani in the middle of this chaos, to a Nigerian father and a mother from Barbados. Her late father, Augustine Nnamani was a former supreme court justice and justice minister.
Her birthplace was the city of Umuahia, which was at a point the capital of the new republic but is today part of the southeastern state of Abia in a unified Nigeria. She was only a few days old when she was taken to Barbados where she lived with her maternal family until after the war, returning in 1971.
Showing an early proclivity for the arts, Boyo was admitted to the University of Benin where she studied theatre arts with a focus on television and film. She was fresh out of school when she landed the plum Checkmate gig, created by the late maverick producer Amaka Igwe.
Boyo recalled being overwhelmed by the opportunity. “I remember driving to the location in Ikorodu [area of Lagos], meeting other members of the quite impressive cast and feeling intimidated because they were all professionals, and I was just starting out.” She credited Igwe, who was also a young woman at the time, with ensuring everyone blended seamlessly.
Checkmate wasn’t just the most popular soap on television at the time – it ran from 1991 to 1994 – it also had a significant cultural impact. At the time, actors were not considered reputable members of society, but Boyo said people would come up to tell her that they found her role as the independent-minded businesswoman Ann Haatrope dignifying, and this made it less stigmatising, for women in particular, to go into film and TV.
“That is also when I realized we were changing minds and convincing girls that the corporate world was for them,” Boyo added.
The success of Checkmate made it clear to Boyo though that she did not particularly enjoy the exposure that came with acting. She said, “I didn’t realise at the time how interested people would be in my life beyond the screen. It did scare me.”
Still, when Igwe invited her to produce Violated, their next project together, she leapt at the opportunity, “When the opportunity came to produce, it almost felt like something clicked and I had found what I was supposed to be doing. Amaka was a great teacher. I was a first-time producer, and she gave me free rein and I thrived.”
Producing was such a fit for Boyo that she disappeared from the screens totally, bidding goodbye to her leading lady era. Over the years, she has popped up in the occasional supporting role in a handful of films by trusted directors.
She also founded a school, after a real-life plot twist that launched one of her philanthropic pursuits.
The proprietor of the school where her children were enrolled decided to shut it down permanently, potentially leaving the children without an education. Boyo teamed up with eleven other parents to start the Lagos Preparatory School in Ikoyi.
Her childhood friend Okwo was far from surprised at this turn of events.
“Ego is a person that reads far and wide and goes out of her way to learn new things and stay informed,” she told Al Jazeera. “I doubt that there is any subject she doesn’t have some knowledge about.”
Her passion for education has also informed the advocacy and philanthropy work that she does. In 2016, the Oando Foundation, a non-profit focused on education, reached out to Boyo for assistance with an unbudgeted project. Boyo’s husband is the deputy chief executive at the foundation’s parent company, the oil company Oando PLC.
A school in Ewekoro, a suburb of Ogun state was relocated temporarily to a poultry pen because a number of the pupils had been killed in accidents while attempting to cross the road to get to school. The poultry pen was, however, infested by snakes and uninhabitable during the rainy season.
After being contacted by the foundation, Boyo sprung into action.
She sent a film crew pro bono to document the story and amplified the project, involving many of her celebrity contacts like actress Kate Henshaw who helped drum up support to eventually raise the funds that completed a new school building.
Henshaw told Al Jazeera, “The first time I went to the school, I was in tears and to go back after a year or so to see a completed building, toilet, laptops for the students … It was a joy to behold.”
“Ego’s impact is huge,” she added. “She has integrity. She is about the detail and quality of work, but she cares about people. She is a huge asset to the film industry.”
She has also delved into the roles and treatment of women in Nigerian society after an immersive theatre production on sexual assault left an indelible impact on her and she began to pay closer attention. At a rally to support victims of sexual violence, Boyo met Itoro Eze-Anaba whose foundation set up the Mirabel Centre, Nigeria’s first sexual assault referral centre.
Boyo was gratified when she received the invitation to join the Mirabel Centre’s governing board and has thrust herself headlong into the work, advising on communication strategies and media initiatives.
Eze-Anaba offered her immediate impressions about the Nollywood star: “Ego Boyo is not silent on issues she is passionate about. She lends her voice loudly and takes a stand.”
She further praised Boyo’s passion and generosity, saying, “We have made contact with celebrities who are not even in Ego’s league only for them to demand payment to work with us. Ego is committing her time and resources to ensuring that the Centre continues to provide free services to survivors and without asking for anything in return. She is a treasure.”
Disturbed by the careless misogyny she has often come across on the internet, Boyo who calls herself an “unapologetic feminist”, is presently interested in advocacy programmes looking to change the ways women are represented in media and has set up a foundation to support non-profits with media services.
She has encouraged writers and filmmakers to reconsider the kind of images they put out into the world. “Instead of having the woman browbeaten all the time, we can have a woman who stands up for herself or one who is not dependent on a man for her livelihood. In 2023, we still see ads with women in the kitchen and the man watching television. Would it be so shocking to have a guy in the kitchen making food? Isn’t that the reality for some people? And in any case, can we not imagine a better world?”
She continued, “I believe women should be treated equally to men with same opportunities and expectations. This has come out a bit in my work sometimes intentionally or otherwise. If there is any opportunity that I can give to a competent woman, then I am happy to.”
With streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon now helping Nollywood filmmakers reach global audiences that were previously inaccessible, Boyo is cautiously optimistic even when the industry has given her several reasons to doubt. Her movies are largely self-funded by profits from her corporate output, and she stresses that she wouldn’t be making movies if she didn’t have this privilege.
But she has had her challenges.
Despite its cultural resonance, Keeping Faith, failed to turn a profit for her as she sold the video rights to a middleman marketer upfront for a price she describes as “negligible,” effectively cutting herself out of future profits. This marketer would later confess to her that the film was one of his biggest-selling titles.
It wasn’t until, The Ghost and the House of Truth, that Boyo first turned a profit on one of her projects. Overcoming a disappointing theatrical run at home, the film scored a couple of streaming and video-on-demand deals that reaped a tidy profit.
As she’s grown as a businesswoman and prepares her next slate of films – at least two features and one historical documentary – Boyo is learning to balance her artistic instincts against the cut-throat demands of the business.
Now reluctant to assume all of the financial risk, Boyo says collaboration is key and financing and distribution must be in place before she makes another film. “I have waited long enough, seen enough, experimented with failure in the market and at the box office to now see that this is the way it has to be. But I have great faith that I would be able to get the deals done.”
Many in the industry believe it would be wrong to bet against her, given her precedents in weathering its different phases.
“She has always brought her A-game from her days on television through the transition to movies and then to producing,” Husseini tells Al Jazeera. “A lot of people have looked up to her and she raises the game each time.”