Review by Sean Boelman
The new HBO documentary The Legend of the Underground is one of those movies that is enormously hard to review if only because it is so dangerous for the people involved to talk about it. However, Giselle Bailey and Nneka Onuorah have made an essential film to contribute to a necessary conversation.
The movie shines a light on the rampant discrimination in Nigeria by following a group of non-conformist men who are faced with the choice between oppression or fleeing their home country. It’s heartbreaking to see that this still happens anywhere in the world, especially since these issues haven’t received much in the way of public attention.
There is a significant shift around the halfway mark in which the film begins to focus less on the discrimination and Nigeria and more on how the non-conformist community has come together in an attempt to survive, both metaphorically and literally. The first half is shocking and eye-opening, and the latter half is poetically beautiful.
This is a movie about resilience in the face of adversity, and it is absolutely moving as such. The fact that these people are able to put up with so much and yet still find a way to achieve joy in their life is astounding. Bailey and Onuorah don’t shy away from the horrors of the discrimination, but also beautifully depict the things that make the community so amazing.
Perhaps due to fear of their safety, the film doesn’t go into much detail on the individual subjects’ lives. However, it does a great job of making a compelling subject out of the movement as a whole. There are plenty of moments in the movie that give the audience enough of an emotional connection to latch onto.
It would have been nice to see the film go a bit more into detail on the way in which these non-conformist men use dance to express themselves, something which is explored in the second half of the movie, but again, the filmmakers don’t want to go too deep with any one person in order to protect them. Still, this culture makes for the most fascinating part of the film.
The movie has a wonderful visual style inspired by the scene that is depicted in the back half. It’s frequently gorgeous to look at, particularly during the dance sequences. But Bailey and Onuorah also integrate other footage, like recordings of violence against the non-conformists, in a way that is extremely effective.
The Legend of the Underground is a very important documentary bringing attention to an issue that needs to be discussed on a global scale. Hopefully audiences will see this and leave inspired, both to make a difference and to live life to the fullest.
The Legend of the Underground hits HBO and HBO Max on June 29.