The BBC two-part drama, Blood and Oil, which couldn’t be more topical, is now streaming on Netflix for USA audiences.
Every now and then the BBC will turn out a decent contemporary drama that doesn’t draw from a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens novel of which Blood and Oil was the latest. At best, I expected a typical made-for-white-audience production with familiar cliches and themes surrounding Nigeria such as corruption, massive poverty despite its oil resources, mismanagement and misappriation of wealth.
However, while these themes certainly were clearly present, the story unfolds mainly from the point of view of well developed black characters.
As if this wasn’t surprising enough, at the heart of the story are two women – one black, one white – with links to the oil rich Niger delta region of Nigeria. Though it shares its name, Blood and Oil, with Michael T Klare’s 2008 documentary which calls for a radical re-thinking of US energy policy, particularly in the Middle East, this BBC drama, a taut, well paced thriller, centres around the kidnapping of four employees of a Western oil company operating in the oil rich Nigerian region of the Niger delta.
It takes a frighteningly plausible “what if” scenario and runs with it at warp speed, turning out the kind of production that would have made a superb feature film (if edited down from it ‘s current 3 hours to about 2).
Though filmed in South Africa, this TV drama had the kind of layered story, acting and technical quality I dearly wish Nollywood could regularly muster.
Naomi Harris gives a great performance as Alice Omuka – a naïve, well-meaning PR exec whose main concern is with protecting the image of her oil company client. Although of Nigerian descent, with her middle class British upbringing (which, if my understanding of what middle class in the US means, might more accurately be described in American terms as upper class), up until this point her job seems mainly to have been an accessory or milestone to augment her already privileged lifestyle – good education, good home/family, good job…
Her first trip to Nigeria, and her father’s homeland, is on behalf of Krielson, a Western oil company. On this occasion, however, PR fluff comes up against the reality of corruption – skullduggeray, subterfuge, sabotage and insatiable greed; all accompanied with the subtle details of walled compounds of manicured lawns, floodlight tennis courts and swimming pools where western oil workers reside, juxtoposed with the not so subtle austere surroundings of the indigenous creek and waterfront dwellers.
As well as the themes mentioned earlier, is an update on a theme remiscent of colonial (or even antebellum) master forsaking a mundane middle class life for a somewhat hedonistic life of indulgence with a black “Angel” by his side (with Angel actually being the name of one of the bar-girl characters that “seduced” one of the kidnapped and murdered hostages; naturally incurring the hatred, angst and anger of the white wife).
With more than a touch of authenticity, there’s a typical Nigerian evangelical church scene in which the wife meets her husband’s “Angel” and lets rip her understandably post-traumatic and jealous rage.
Other subtle but authentic details included scenes of nubile young black women accompanying foreign/expatriate business men in sophisticated social settings; black people (of no or unknown status) being held back while foreign business men are ushered in/forward for entry into a hotel; and there also references to real-life groups and situations, such as MEND, which stands for Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta a real organisation dedicated to localising control of Nigeria’s oil and securing reparations from the federal government for pollution caused by the oil industry, though they’re also seen, both by the Nigerian government and by international concerns, as terrorists; and also mention of the Ogoni people who came to international attention after a massive public protest campaign against Shell Oil following, in the 1990s, the shootings, killings and mass destruction of homes by Mobile Police Force of protesters against Shell, resulting in the death of an estimated 2,000 Ogoni people and displacement of an estimated 80,000.
Back to the plot, the white wife, Claire Unwin, played admirably by Jodhi May, leaves England on hearing of her husband’s kidnap, and goes to Nigeria to be closer to the process of getting her husband and his colleagues returned safely, only to be reunited his corpse hanging from a mangrove tree, covered in blood. Natrually traumatised by this image, she nevertheless resolves not to leave Nigeria until she gets to the bottom of why her husband, whom she was assured would be returned safely after hostage negotiations and secret ransome payments (this is an actual common occurence in the Niger delta region for Western oil company employees, though never involving bloodshed in real life instances).
The more stubbornly Unwin resolves to stay rather than just play the grieving wife who can be fobbed off with a sob story, the more she learns of the lurid truth behind her husband’s life and death in Nigeria.
The cast was a mix of Nigerian, South African and British talent (though all the major roles were performed by British, British-Nigerian and Black-British actors), including Chike Okonkwo (who played Ebi, a MEND rebel leader, someone I’m always glad to see, whether on stage or screen, since casting him in the lead for a short film I wrote years ago which, sadly, never made it to production). Also commendable among the supporting cast is the performance by Nyasha Hatendi, who played the fact finding, truth blazing local journalist, Noel; having said that, it was hard for me to buy his accent as West African, let alone from any discernable part of Nigeria – though, to be honest, if it wasn’t for the engaging storylines, I could have easily played a game of spot the real Nigerians (or British-Nigerians in the case of Okonkwo and David Oyelowo).
Speaking of Oyelowo, his was another sterling performance. Here he plays Keme Tobodo, a Nigerian hostage negotiator who acts as intermediary between oil companies and local militant groups to safely secure the release of Western oil company employees; and an activist who campaigns for better redistribution of wealth to include the local populations whose lands are exploited and polluted at great cost to their health and livelihoods.
So, amidst rumours of prostitution rings, Russian mafia, merecenary activities and the unorthodox operation of the oil industry in the region, including oil bunkering on a massive scale, with pilfered oil mainly being sold on eventually, not on local streets corners from drums or litre sized gerry cans, but in the global market, things turn from generally sinister to the personal, when PR exec Omuka finds out just how close she is to the corruption; finding she has more in common with the Oyelowo’s activitst character.
While I thouroughly enjoyed this drama, there was a discomforting notion that gives rise to the question of whether any wealthy Nigerian ever earns their fortune by any honest or legitimate means. Also, it’s not clear why the wife or the intermediary/activist are allowed to go free, given what they find out. However, it is clear that the women at the centre of the story, widowed Claire Unwin and disillusioned PR exec Alice Omuka, will not be returning to England to live naïve pedestrian lives in which they’ll take anything (including the lives of their nearest and dearest men folk) at face value.
Blood and Oil ends on a surprisingly rousing note, tinged only with the sad reality that the people of the Nigerian delta region have experienced untold exploitation and pollution of their land and water, their livelihoods and, in extreme cases, the loss of lives, for the needs of greedy business men and politicians, at home and abroad, and the never ending global thirst for oil, with not even so much as electricity, running water, or adequate medical and educational facilities as recompense.
Here’s a preview: