Written by Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, “Death and the King’s Horseman,” is a tragic play based on the true story of Elesin Oba, the Yoruba King’s horseman that depicts the traditional beliefs of Nigerian Yoruba culture as well as their perspective on life and death. Based on this Wole Soyinka play, “Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman” is a Netflix original movie directed by Biyi Bandele. The film portrayed the true story of Elesin Oba during British colonization in Nigeria in 1943. Elesin Oba, the King’s horseman, was about to commit ritual suicide so that he could take the deceased King to his ancestors in the afterlife.
‘Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman’ Plot Summary: What is the Film About?
The film is based on a true incident that happened during World War II in 1943 in Oyo, Nigeria. The honorable King of the Yoruba community in Nigeria died recently; therefore, his horseman was required by tradition to commit ‘ritual suicide’ to take the King on his passage to paradise.
Elesin Oba (played by Odunlade Adekola) spent his final days surrounded by women and luxury. On his last day, he told Iyaloja (played by Shaffy Bello), the “mother” of the marketplace, that he had desired to marry a beautiful woman (played by Omowunmi Dada), who happened to be Iyaloja’s future daughter-in-law. But Iyaloja chose to grant Elesin’s last wish. Elesin married and slept with the woman because his last desire was to create offspring who would bear his lineage. Meanwhile, Amusa, a Muslim sergeant, told his superior, British District Officer Simon Pickling (played by Mark Elderkin), about the “ritual suicide.” Simon and his wife Jane (played by Jenny Stead) tried to prevent the death because the Nigerian custom seemed ‘barbaric’ to them. Later, when Elesin’s older son, Olunde (played by Deyemi Okanlawon), arrives from England to bury his father, he is aware that his father has married someone. Ulonde went to confront Simon to prevent him from interfering with the Yoruba people’s ceremony since he knew that Simon would not permit them to practice it. But Simon was already on his way to arrest Elesin. Elesin was eventually arrested and prevented from committing suicide.
Simon held Elesin imprisoned in a hidden location and prohibited him from making any decisions about dying. Meanwhile, Iyaloja made her way to Elesin. She deeply condemned him for his failure because she believed it was his fault that he could not perform his duty. Iyaloja informed him that Olunde died to carry out the rite and save his father’s “honor” because his father had failed to bring the King’s soul to rest. The dead body of Olunde was brought before Elesin, who was drowning in shame and guilt for not performing his duty. Therefore, he committed suicide by tying the shackles around his neck.
Did Elesin Want To Die? Why Did Simon Want To Stop Him?
Gluttony, desire, and a sense of entitlement are universal human traits that humans can never entirely eliminate. Elesin Oba was also an ordinary human with greed and desires who could not escape from them. Even in his final moments, he wanted to possess a woman and have children. He deflowered a young girl who was about to marry another man. Though Elesin knew he would eventually die, he destroyed a young woman’s life by marrying her. Elesin took his people for granted and believed that they would be obligated to obey all of his last wishes as he was about to die. Iyaloja handed her future daughter-in-law over to him just to protect the honor of Elesin and her community. However, Elesin continued to delay his death, indicating that he was not mentally prepared to leave this earth. He might have wanted to live with his newlywed wife and raise his children. So, he appeared to be terrified to make such a drastic decision as to end his life. When Simon imprisoned him, he constantly cursed Simon and his future and also blamed his wife, but he forgot that he himself did not want to die. However, having lost his son, Olunde, he no longer felt any desire for anything in his life. Perhaps he wished to see his unborn child, but the death of his elder son ended all his hopes and wishes in his life. Elesin committed suicide in front of everyone.
On the other hand, the British District Officer, Simon didn’t appreciate the fact that Elesin was going to commit suicide as part of a religious rite. Simon and his wife, Jane, are both British and Christians, so they could not embrace these blind beliefs. They even put on the vestments worn by the deceased in Yoruba culture, which was their way of showing unacceptability towards Yoruba customs. Olnude informed Jane that after living in England for so long, he had learned that the British don’t respect things that they don’t believe in. Simon only prevented Elesin from committing suicide due to his skepticism of Yoruba beliefs since he did not want any religion to practice these terrible customs. Both Jane and Simon believed that because there was no such rite of suicide in Christianity, no other sect or religion should have it. So Picklin tried everything he could to stop Elesin from dying.
‘Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman’ Ending Explained: What Was the Concept of Life and Death? What Does Honor Mean To The Yoruba?
Simon and other Britishers viewed death as the horror that brings an end to human life. However, according to Christian history, Jesus Christ delivered salvation to mankind through his death. Similarly, the Yoruba people of Nigeria regard death as genuine and natural as life. They do not fear death but rather embrace it in order for fresh life to emerge. They never want the dead King’s spirit to roam their country dissatisfied; therefore, they celebrate the horseman’s ritual suicide so that he can accompany the King and live in the afterlife peacefully. As a result, this custom was highly valued by their entire tribe. Like other sects or religions, they did not view death as a terrible omen; thus, they performed the ceremony of playing music when someone passed away. Olunde could have easily dismissed this superstition as he was an educated person, but he didn’t. He was also hurt by his father’s incapacity to perform his duty. Even when Jane called the Yoruban cultural beliefs a barbaric custom, Olunde talked about the world war situation where millions of people were dying. According to Olunde, the war was barbaric, not their cultural beliefs. Therefore, after Olunde saw that his father was unable to safeguard the honor of his King, he resolved to suicide to save his father’s honor and maintain the tradition.
Iyaloja blamed Elesin for retreating at the last minute, as he was unable to control his greed and passion. She believed Elesin’s mistake would put a curse on the entire community. Elesin finally understood the true meaning of honor and sacrifice when he saw his elder son’s lifeless body in front of him. Though he failed to keep his promise to accompany his King at first, he tried to protect his vow once again. So, he committed suicide, seeing his son dead, and protecting the honor of his bloodline. With a wounded heart and tears in her eyes, Elesin’s new bride sat in front of the dead bodies. She was aware that the child she was about to carry would bring in a new age. They believed that just as death puts an end to human life, birth necessitates the beginning of a new one.
Through “Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman,” neither Wole Soyinka nor Biyi Bandele intended to glorify suicide or superstition but rather to show the innovative perspective of life and death. This community regarded death as a natural occurrence that was part of their rituals and was honored by each and every member of the tribe. This is an unprecedented trait of the peasants’ allegiance to the King and reverence for their beliefs, which Biyi Bandele conveyed quite well in his last film, “Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman.” Perhaps we will rarely witness such beautiful and thoughtful work in Nollywood after the renowned novelist and director Biyi Bandele died on August 7, 2022.
“Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman” is a 2022 Historical Drama film directed by Biyi Bandele.