Brave out activists fighting back against homophobic oppression in Nigeria are the subject of a documentary airing now on HBO Max. Directed by Nneka Onuorah and Giselle Bailey, The Legend of the Underground debuted June 29, and follows the lives of LGBTQ+ and nonconformist Nigerians at home and abroad as they bravely as they struggle amid anti-LGBTQ+ laws and outdated societal attitudes through social media, underground radio, and more.
One of those featured in the documentary is a man identified as James, who attracted global attention when he was one of 57 men arrested for attending a party in Lagos in 2018. Risking further abuse at the hands of police as he was led away in handcuffs, James spoke out in defiance of the government’s anti-LGBTQ+ Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill (SSMPA). The moment was captured on video and went viral, bringing awareness to the plight of queer Nigerians who continue to face arrest and physical violence from authorities.
The video of James bravely fighting for his rights captured the attention of the The Legend of the Underground directors Onuorah and Bailey.
“The first thought that sparked in our minds was that this was a case of profiling to enforce laws on sexuality which is a violation of freedom of expression,” the directorial pair said in a statement. “All over the world there are many people who are sentenced to jail, stoned, and even killed based on the way they present and express themselves.”
The film also visited New York to meet with queer folks of the Nigerian diaspora who were forced to flee their native country and its oppressive system of authority. Michael Ighodaro escaped Nigeria after he was the victim of a brutal homophobic assault, but now advocates on behalf of the community he left behind. According to Onuorah and Bailey, Ighodaro’s plight shows that simply escaping the country doesn’t provide relief from the oppression.
Michael and James, courtesy of HBO
“Through the stories in the film, we find that neither decision to stay or leave grants freedom,” the directors said, adding that “freedom is a state of being” which can be realized through the individual expression and creativity often realized through the use of social media.
“We believe that self-expression is a human right and a catalyst to cultural revolution,” the directors said. “Our intention is to bring worldwide attention to these human rights issues.”
The Legend of the Underground is directed by Nneka Onuorah and Giselle Bailey, executive produced by Mike Jackson, John Legend, Ty Stiklorius ,and Austyn Biggers of Get Lifted Film Co. It can be seen now on HBO Max and you can watch the official trailer for The Legend of the Underground below.