In Nigeria, homosexuality is criminalized. As a newscaster reports, “Gay couples can be imprisoned for 14 years. Gay clubs are outlawed — as are meetings between gay people.” What is more, even being perceived as being gay can generate an equally harsh prison sentence. And when LGBTQ folks — or those perceived of being LGBTQ — are arrested, the authorities often want them to divulge names of friends or other LGBTQ individuals so they can arrest and prosecute them too. (Cell phone contacts are often examined for this purpose).
The impactful documentary, “The Legend of the Underground,” reveals acts of resistance that members of the Nigerian LGBTQ community are doing in Lagos and New York City. The film, directed by Nneka Onuorah and Giselle Bailey, concentrates on a handful of men as they eke out their lives and go “underground” to meet or attend parties. Timi, who hosts the QueerCity podcast, reports about this community that is living “in fear and violation” while they also try to live authentically.
Michael Ighodaro, an activist and advocate, is a queer Nigerian refugee living in New York City. He recounts his decision to leave Nigeria for the US after he was attacked in his homeland. He describes the risks he faces, but also explains the strategies he and other gay men use to operate discretely, such as coded words. Asking someone if they are “TB,” he says, is a way to confirm if they are gay. In the film, Michael returns to Nigeria — despite the risks of such a trip — after a long absence to learn the stories of other gay men.
One of the people Michael meets in Lagos is James Brown, who was arrested in 2018 — along with 57 other men attending a party — and got accused of being homosexual. Brown challenged the police at the time of his arrest, asking if it was a crime to attend a party and perform. He insists that he was not caught performing a sexual act (which is illegal) and his remark, “You didn’t caught me,” became a viral sensation.
Moreover, Brown became a hero for the LGBTQ community in Nigeria, and his status as a social media influencer skyrocketed. He wants to inspire people; however, Brown also received considerable backlash in the form of harassment and hatred verbally, in public, and on his social media channels. As his case goes to court, there are numerous delays, a tactic the authorities use to extend the time needed to collect evidence to substantiate their charges. “The Legend of the Underground” shows it can be a hardship for those arrested to repeatedly have to return to court for trials that are rescheduled, particularly if they want to study abroad.
Onuorah and Bailey’s involving documentary shows the solidarity of these men whose activism is for the greater good of the community. They “do for each other,” noting that it is better than “what a white man can do for us.” As such, they attend support groups, such as one where Emmanuel tearfully describes how his family shunned him — he wasn’t allowed to even share the family’s silverware — after his mother learned that he was HIV-positive.
The film has several moving episodes, as many interviewees talk about not being accepted by their families or having to live on the streets for a spell. There are a handful of scenes set in and around the House of Allure, run by Mr. Michael, who provides a safe space for gay and queer men to live after they are thrown out of their homes.
Fortunately, “The Legend of the Underground” is not all downbeat. The film features several joyful clips of the men performing. There is dancing and catwalking, and a fun sequence features a “Mr. Ideal Nigeria” pageant. These scenes show how the community creates niches to exist. One subject in the film, Danrele, who describes himself as a “sexual outlaw,” talks about his fabulous style and the shoes and clothes he admires and enjoys. He also asks for the respect he deserves. This leads to a vignette that indicates how, if you want to be queer in Nigeria, you cannot be poor — and you need to know the law and your rights to privacy.
“The Legend of the Underground” also briefly touches on the critical issue of seeking asylum, which can be a risky option for many of these men. As Edafe Okporo, who lives in New York and coordinates visas, explains, arriving in the US may still result in spending months on end in a detention center, and there is no guarantee that asylum will be granted. Deji, who is interviewed in the film, describes living in such limbo.
Onuorah and Bailey hopscotch around the various topics and interviewees, which emphasizes both the sense of community and disruption these gay and queer men must all feel. It’s an effective approach. “Legend of the Underground” may be full of poignant, heartbreaking stories, but this film is as life-affirming as it is eye-opening.
THE LEGEND OF THE UNDERGROUND | Directed by Nneka Onuorah and Giselle Bailey | Premiering June 29 on HBO; distributed by HBO Documentary Films