When director Kúnlé Afọláyan released The Figurine, a mystery drama persuasively blending an invented myth with art connoisseurship in a cutthroat world of business, in 2009, the film was judged a Nollywood game-changer largely from the look of it. The cinematography bathed the narrative in bright but controlled colour planning, a balance of cultural depth and an approach to melodrama that yanked the genre from the industry’s lethargic grip. With this second film, Afọláyan quickly established himself as a director of note, the pan-Nigerian consciousness of his work blooming confidently from grounding in a Yorùbá flowerbed. This is a short decade from his appearance as the pimply-faced character, Arẹ́sẹ̀, in Ṣaworoidẹ (1999), by his mentor, Túndé Kèlání. Before October 1st, Afọláyan’s fourth film, went to theaters in 2014, Kèlání said, “He is one of my success stories.”
October 1st dramatizes a story set in the two weeks before Nigeria’s formal independence celebrations on October 1, 1960. Inspector Danladi Waziri (Sadiq Daba) is called in by his boss, the colonial chief of police, to investigate the mystery of brutal murders in Àkótè, a small town in the Western Region. An unknown killer has left the bodies of women—raped, then strangled, and marked with “X” carved into their necks—in the bush above the town, and the boss does not want the development to soil his planned handover celebrations. On the day of Waziri’s arrival, Adérọ́pò, the prince (Ọbájìnmí Ayọ́rìndé), returns to Àkótè from Ìbàdàn, preparatory to further studies in Britain. As Waziri investigates, so does the king implore his priest (Yẹmí Elẹ́buìbọn) to inquire of Ifá.
The oracle’s provisional verdict is that the killer is troubled and will not stop until ten murders have been committed. When a girl, Biśí, is murdered, the focus of investigation turns to Sùmọ́nù (Ibrahim Chatta), a palace guard who meets with her secretly. With Sùmọ́nù in custody, news of another murder, Chidinma, despite the new curfew, brings all emotion to a boil. A traveling Hausa man, Usman Dangari, is apprehended but killed out of passion by Chidinma’s father (Kanayo O. Kanayo) as the police prepare to take him to another prison in Ìbàdàn. However, he leaves a clue (the whistling sound of the ‘God Save the Queen’ he heard from a man in the bush) that would be helpful to Waziri as he gets closer to the truth.
This crime thriller hones closely to the sense of anticipation going with the independence celebrations. In the last hour of the film, the action accelerates daily, with intertitles appearing from September 24, 25, and so on, to further tie the plot to the momentous event. Political figures, their legends, images, or broadcasts (Fúnmiláyọ̀ Ransome-Kuti, Àdùnní Olúwọlé, Ọbáfẹ́mi Awólọ́wọ̀, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa) make appearances, and are cleverly blended into the narrative. For example, the reason the government would not prosecute the final suspect (caught in the act) is because he is the son of a king who is an ally of the Premier of the Western Region. As do ethnicity and cultural belief: Waziri’s right-hand man, Sergeant Àfọ̀njá (Káyọ̀dé Ọláìyá) refuses the order to arrest the Ifa priest on the grounds that it is taboo, and he is suspended for insubordination, while the aggrieved Igbo residents suspect that Waziri would let Dangari off because the suspect is a fellow Hausa.
But none of these detracts from the film’s generic focus as a thriller, mixing mystery and action, and keeping scrupulously away from anything that does not add to the suspense. Daba as a detective is one of the film’s highlights. His sinewy appearance goes well with the shrewd demeanor of sleuth able to see through any and all bullshit, displaying the professionalism becoming of his calling by keeping personal and cultural preferences under seal. His sharp exchange with his boss, in one climactic scene, has a subtle political tone. The whites are no longer in charge at this moment, but as the half-sympathetic officer tells him, they are merely passing the baton of class preferences to their Nigerian successors. Colonial rule is over, but politics-as-usual is not.
In this film, Afọláyan polishes off some of his signature skills. The sequences with the white administrators reveal a significant move in Nollywood—the conception of casting that goes beyond Nigeria. It is also striking to see a generation of professional actors with such self-assurance as to make the idea of a consolidated Nigerian film industry more than a wishful thinking, three decades on. There are plausible moments of tragedy, like the murder of the promising and dutiful Corporal Ọmọlọdún, and the fate of the expendable Dangari. In those moments, Túndé Babalọlá’s screenplay comes beautifully alive. When the echoes of historic explosion marking the dawn of independence reaches Àkótè, Afọláyan constructs a stunning montage of a party attended by the townsfolk and other dignitaries, and through this joyous dance, both the cops and the culprit meander their way to their targets, with fresh, unbeknownst victims.
The film would have had a firmer, more realistic scene-setting by showing the town on its own, away from the filter of the curfew. Unknown to all but Àgbẹ́kọ̀yà and Adérọ́pò, Reverend Dowling’s charity is anything but, so a provisional reflection on this predatory behaviour would have served as a fitting foil to Canon Kúforíjì’s virtue-signaling during his meeting with Waziri. The actor playing Miss Táwà (Kẹ́hìndé Bánkọ́lé) does an excellent job in speech—effortlessly in Yorùbá and English—and action, with her incredibly fastidious task of teaching pupils to switch from ‘God Save the Queen’ to “Nigeria, We Hail Thee.”