Warning: Spoilers abound
I would be remiss if I didn’t confess that I no longer write reviews of Ghanaian cinematic productions or streamed series. It was a decision I made after 2015, when my unbiased observations of a certain filmmaker’s work were re-framed (or misinterpreted) as a personal attack, rather than the valid concerns about the Ghanaian caste system and structural inequalities that this person’s work celebrated and/or failed to acknowledge, depending on the plot. So while I have some hesitations sharing my thoughts on Shirley Frimpong-Manso’s recent Netfix release, The Perfect Picture: 10 Years Later, I do so with some level of confidence – all thanks to Shirley’s professional posture.
She is a filmmaker who, while striving for perfection, is also aware of the peculiar limitations that govern Ghana’s nascent film industry. From the brief interaction I had with her and from interviews she’s granted, you see a woman who wants genuine feedback from viewers, rather than a lathering stroking of her ego. As viewers will see and recognize with the locations featured, she uses the resources around her and presents them in a flattering light. Whenever unfair critiques or parallels are drawn between ‘Ghallywood’ and Hollywood, it is Lydia Forson that has so frequently reminded us all that every filmmaker in the country is an independent. It’s also common knowledge that beyond lip service and empty promises, little government investment has been made in the creative arts, and so much of the work we see on screen or stream through our personal devices is self-funded by the producers of film. It’s a community that nourishes itself, with everyone pitching in. To more of Shirley’s credit, she and her partner -Ken Attoh – have set the standard for cinematic photography since their foray into the enterprise.
Now that that’s out of the way…
I will start off by saying that I emphatically recommend that anyone who loves high life, romantic comedies and witty dialogue watch the film. It does not come without devils, though. Be advised early that there are technical flaws in the execution of the film that were unnoticeable on the big screen but hard to miss in a digital stream. Sometimes the sound was off sync and some of the actors looked chalky. These are some of the public criticisms that even the cast and producers acknowledge. Another criticism is that the focus of the movie seemed to center solely on sex. It’s that particular criticism I want to address. I believe that the intimate/sexual relationships these women navigate serve as plot points to move dialogue along, rather than the central theme itself. (Feel free to disagree with me on Twitter.)
The movie follows the lives of three beloved characters: Dede, Aseye and Akasi. We see them navigating sexual pleasure under strained – and sometimes bizarre – circumstances. Akasi is dealing with infertility and not just with any partner, but with one who is sexually insatiable where his wife is concerned and desperate to make a baby. On the other hand, we have Aseye who is a mother of five. Her goal is to have a sixth child…kind of difficult when your husband is afraid to make love to you because he knows that the act will invariably end up in pregnancy. He’s terrified of the power and potency of his wife’s womb. Finally, there’s Dede, a persona summed up in one word: freak.
In my opinion, it is Dede’s freakiness – its ripple effects and consequences – that inspire the most interesting subplots and themes for discussion: those being rape, forgiveness and filial relationships.
When we meet Dede in the prequel, she’s a young woman who has embraced her sexuality and has no qualms about sleeping with married men. In the sequel 10 years later, she finds herself accused of sexual assault and in need of the services of a noted lawyer – the now ex-wife of one of the men she’s bedded. What you expect to unfold onscreen – an embittered divorcé (Flora) taking out her spleen on a vulnerable and frightened potential client (Dede) – instead blossoms as an image of grace. Dede, Flora explains, did not destroy her marriage. She was merely the final straw in a series of philandering escapes that her ex was industrially committed to carrying out. Flora not only takes up Dede’s case, but offers her friendship; invites her into a sacred space, her own church, and champions her fight as one for all women who have shirked society’s prudish judgments in order to live as free women.
It’s a refreshing departure from the ‘women are their own worst enemies’ trope bandied about in popular culture, and one the mirrors my own positive experiences with women, who are more wont to help me with a door, baby stroller or offer genuine kindness than a man is.
This subplot deserves an hour-long discussion on its own. What is rape? Can women rape men? (Yes) At what point of a sexual encounter be defined as crossing the line into assault? (When consent is never given or withdrawn) These are just a few of the questions that are still points of confusion for many Ghanaians, despite the years of work that have gone into educating the populace on the matter. Just last week, a man who has spent years masquerading as a counselor made an outlandish pronouncement after being invited to a local media house. “Every rape victim enjoys the act,” he said with clownish bravado. (There is a campaign to ban him from the air completely, which I hope will be successful.)
As the film reveals, language matters. In this case an enraged Gloria unloads on Dede, describing her son as “the 21-year-old boy who you raped”; which a shaken Dede vehemently denies. To the foreign viewer, this assertion will seem absurd. 21 is certainly well into the age of consent. This is no “boy” by legal standards. But context matters and in this case, the context is the puritan Ghanaian norm. In the eyes of a single mother who sacrificed everything to bring her son up in a “good home” with hopes of being someone in the world, seeing him bound, gagged and whipped by a woman clad in leather could only be read as one thing: rape. Anyone who has knowledge or experience outside of that norm could read the situation for what it was (some light BDSM) but in a culture where we still uses phrases where the aftermath of sex girl enjoy or experience is described as “deflowered”, “chopped”, “smashed”, etc. – seeing an older woman engage in this kind of sex with a younger partner is not just abnormal – it defies the power dynamics that skew in favor or men.
The fact is, Gloria’s son was sprung, and not possessing the language to call it what it was, she mislabeled his wide open nose as ‘rape’.
Sam is Dede’s love interest, played by celebrated Nigerian actor, RMD. He’s just… Well, YOU look at him.
ANYWAY, the pair meet in therapy, he to find healing for the fractured relationship with his daughter – Sammy – and Dede to find a bridle for the riotous chaos between her legs. For Sammy, the relationship with Dede is just another in a long string of her father’s dalliances that broke up her childhood home. As you expect, she does everything in her power to let Sam knows that she disapproves and to make Dede feel unwelcome. When the sex tape of the alleged rape is released, Sam is jubilant. Here is proof that his new partner is trash, beneath him. Instead of lashing out in typical “African dad” manner, Sam uses it as an opportunity to come clean about his own past, to reveal the truth about the mechanics of the family breakdown and to explain how he has spent “…14224 phone calls, 78,000 text messages, 4200 emails and over 1.6 million cedis in therapy…that’s how much I tried to get you back.”
It was such a tender and powerful moment. It is really very rare that Black African fathers are portrayed as anything other than the protector/provider stereotype commanding respect cum fear. Here we see a dad in possession of emotional intelligence and the language to convey it. It’s not that these men do not exist; they do in good measure. We just don’t get to see them on screen, and certainly not looking this casually, swaggeringly hot. Ooomf.
Have you seen The Perfect Picture: 10 Years Later yet? Catch it on Nextflix! You can also stream the movies playlist on iTunes where you will hear among other things, the soothing sounds of my Recalcitrant Romeo, Gyedu Blay Ambolley. The cast and crew will be hosting live conversations around the film in coming weeks, so look out for those details in the future.