Special attention is paid to facial expressions in Giselle Bailey and Nneka Onuorah’s The Legend of the Underground, a sensitive and nuanced HBO documentary about Nigerian youth who defy traditional gender roles and embrace fluid identities. In scenes of work and play, the camera closes in and lingers on the faces of these young people, forced to operate in the margins of society, long after they have stopped speaking. Their expressions — flitting between joy, contemplation and sorrow — reveal the quiet strength and tenacity needed to live life on their own terms.
To be gay, or perceived as gay, in Africa’s most populous country is to be criminal. Hate and discrimination are codified into the law: In 2014, then-President Goodluck Jonathan passed the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA), which forbids public displays of affection between people of the same sex and prohibits gay people from gathering publicly or privately. Violating this law — which intensified existing homophobic attitudes in the country and sanctioned violence against LGBTQ Nigerians — could lead to a 14-year prison sentence.
The Legend of the Underground
A worthwhile primer.
Because of these conditions, making this doc required a certain level of consideration: Bailey and Onuorah never explicitly identify the sexual or gender identities of their subjects who still live in Nigeria. Instead, they refer to them broadly as nonconformists; I follow their lead in this review.
The Legend of the Underground begins in Nigeria with a pseudo-triptych. Videos of men getting ready for a night out — applying makeup, pulling on towering high-heeled boots in the dark — are followed by a collection of news reports on SSMPA and images of pastors and congregants fervently praying in churches around the country. Interspersed within this montage are clips of Timi, the host of Queer City, a podcast dedicated to covering Nigeria’s LGBTQ community, recording an episode. “People do not see us,” says Timi, who becomes a guide for viewers as the doc moves among themes. “We live under fear.”
That fear is familiar to Micheal, a Nigerian activist who lived “underground” for 10 years before moving to New York, where he found something akin to freedom. We meet Micheal at the city’s annual Pride parade, dancing down 5th Avenue, his lime green tank billowing as he jumps around, swaying his body left and right. Edafe, another activist who fled Nigeria, is also at Pride, but he is onstage, rallying a crowd with an impassioned speech about the intersections of his identity: He is Black, queer and a refugee. He reminds those in attendance that gay rights have not yet been won. “Nobody is free,” he says, paraphrasing American civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, “until all of us are free.”
Edafe’s words become the doc’s subtle refrain as it moves from the United States back to Nigeria, where dancer and drag queen James is among more than three dozen men being detained by police. (The documentary says the exact number of men is 57, but other news outlets have reported 47.) The cops accuse them of holding a “gay initiation,” an allegation that James fervently denies. A video of his rebuttal, citing Nigerian law, goes viral and becomes a rallying cry for other nonconformist Nigerian youth.
But virality does not protect the men, who are arrested and subsequently charged. Their case, scheduled to go in front of Nigeria’s Supreme Court, becomes a national sensation and galvanizes Micheal to return to his home country to try and help Nigerian youth like James, who have little support. The trip also proves therapeutic, and as Micheal reconnects with old friends he is forced to confront his traumatic past.
Like most documentaries aiming to tell stories rarely seen by mainstream, mostly white, audiences, The Legend of the Underground covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Although the film primarily looks at Micheal’s journey and the case of the 57 young men, it also widens its scope to examine homophobia in Nigeria more generally. Space is smartly carved out for the young people — especially the men involved in the Supreme Court case — to disagree with one another on how they can create better lives. Some are inspired by James, who has built a large social media presence by being bold and expressive; others wonder why he can’t keep a lower profile.
Then, there’s the question of money and power. Not all people who embrace a fluid identity live under legal threat in the same way. Bailey and Onuorah take us into the world of the Nigerian elite — filled with high-profile folks like Denrele Edun, a television host and personality known for his fierce fashion — who can afford to buy protection in the form of hired security or bodyguards.
Despite the volume of information, the doc remains artful and engaging, thanks in large part to Stephen Baily’s kinetic cinematography and Rabab Haj Yahya’s striking editing. Still, I wish more time were spent on each section, including all too brief forays into Nigeria’s history of androgyny, the experience of women in the LGBTQ community, the difficulties of seeking asylum in the U.S. and the violence that Black queer people face whether they are in Lagos or New York. But, of course, that would have required more than the allotted hour and a half; it’s best to think of the film as a primer for these issues, encouraging viewers to take up their own reading and keep learning.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of The Legend of the Underground is that it doesn’t mistake hope for over-sentimentalizing. The underground youth in Nigeria are driven by a deep sense of optimism and community that becomes most apparent in the latter half of the film, which briefly covers #EndSARS, a grass-roots movement that demanded the abolition of the country’s abusive federal police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. (It began in 2017 with a hashtag and gained traction in October 2020 after video surfaced of officers dragging two men out of a hotel and shooting one of them.)
#EndSARS wasn’t just about protesting police brutality; it was also about protesting for the right and dignity of all Nigerians. As scenes of youth marching in the streets follow those of military forces hosing down demonstrators follow those of the doc’s subjects communing, Edafe’s words, “Nobody is free until all of us are free,” resonate less as a declaration and more as an increasingly urgent call to action.