The documentary “The Legend of the Underground” captures queer Nigerian activists as they discuss their country’s laws criminalizing gay sex. Together, they lament unjust arrests and police brutality. But they are not aiming for either martyrdom or altruism — instead, their goal is to improve the circumstances of their own lives.
This film is stylish, like a well-curated advertisement. These men are beautiful, youthful, dressed in mesh and silks. But the movie’s almost shallow appeal to aesthetics is not disconnected from the political agenda of gay Nigerians. For these men, desirability serves multiple purposes. It may entice potential partners, but also advertisers, the global entertainment industry and the hostile Nigerian public.
The movie shows the tug of war between profit and public service by contrasting the civic-minded approach of Michael, an organizer who splits time between Lagos and New York for his safety, with the actions of the prominent Nigerian activist James Brown. James wants to grow his follower count to publicize the queer cause, but he also has ambitions to become a global influencer.
The filmmakers Giselle Bailey and Nneka Onuorah capture arguments as other activists wrestle with the contradictions of James’s motivations. But crucially, they don’t shy away from James. Instead, the film leaves the tension unresolved, suggesting that James’s mix of political protest and personal ambition may be new tactics from a new generation. In the Nigerian queer scene, there are no sinners and no saints. In the end, Michael dons a sweater for a night out at the club. The shirt’s glitter typeface shows a single word: Buysexual.
Legend of the Underground
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes. Watch on HBO platforms.