In many countries, living out and proud can be something that puts your life at risk. After seeing the HBO documentary The Legend of the Underground, that risk is more than evident. Living in plain sight but not living their truths, several young people in Nigeria struggle with acceptance due to strict Nigerian laws.
Imagine not being able to love who you want, not being true to yourself in your home country, a country that will jail you for 14 years for simply using globally received terms to identify yourself and claim your sexuality? That’s what the people in The Legend of the Underground experience daily. Directed by Nneka Onuorah and Giselle Bailey, they follow men in a community whose families have ostracized them, forcing them to find “non-conformist” people like themselves to call their kin. Micheal, a quiet, introspective man who was assaulted in Lagos because of a photograph on the internet, left to live in America. He finds safety, peace of mind and other Nigerian “non-conformists” to form a tight-knit network. Michael also works for LGBTQ+ rights and spreads the word about the oppression in Nigeria. It’s through him that we meet other people thriving and supporting each other back in his home country. You’ll see contradictions as celebrity TV host Denrele, who fought his own battles, is able to be himself because of his status, yet the working class dodge police and meet in secret. What’s clear is class and privilege goes a long way to protect yourself there.
The documentary also centers around an incident drawn out in the courts for years, putting many lives in limbo. When 57 men were arrested for a supposed “initiation club,” James Brown, an outspoken part of the community, had had enough. With his outcry as the men kneeled, handcuffed in front of the unwavering judgement of the Lagos Police, he became an internet sensation, catching the eyes of celebrities like 50 Cent. Along with James Brown, Onuorah and Bailey look at the dangers of merely walking the streets and the activism those in the community work tirelessly at behind closed doors. Their country condemns them as a group but it’s clear they aren’t a monolith, with individual stories and choices taking center stage.
You’ll immediately become invested in the lives of these resilient people, to cry for them, wring your hands in fear and cheer them on. The vibrant visuals match the dynamic personalities we meet, and in this AAFCA roundtable, we had a chance to learn more about this emotional journey for all involved. See the interview here:
The Legend of the Underground is not to be missed. Streaming now on HBO.