Six years into a career that’s seen her emerge as the queen of the Ghanaian box office, Shirley Frimpong-Manso still remembers the African movies she used to watch growing up in Accra — and the way African women were depicted onscreen.
Typically portrayed as weak and submissive, they bore no resemblance to the American stars — “women wielding guns,” as the helmer says, with a laugh — who blazed their way through leading roles in Hollywood films.
More strikingly, they were nothing like the women she saw around her.
“I grew up in a totally different environment,” says the 38-year-old filmmaker, who explains that she was raised in a household run by “strong African women.” When Frimpong-Manso finally embarked on a career in cinema, she thought about how those portrayals were affecting young Ghanaian viewers, and made herself a promise. “It’s about time we change that image of the (African) woman,” she says.
Now, as Frimpong-Manso prepares for the upcoming release of her 11th feature, “Rebecca,” she can reflect on her career as an award-winning writer, producer and director whose reputation for casting forceful female leads has inspired a growing number of Ghanaian women to stake a claim in this male-dominated industry.
In recent years, A-list stars like Yvonne Nelson, Kafui Danku, Yvonne Okoro and Lydia Forson have started taking on bigger roles as helmers and producers. For many, that evolution hasn’t just meant giving women more power behind the scenes, but changing the way they’re portrayed onscreen in this conservative West African nation. “Being an actress and being a celebrity is just a platform,” says Forson, who last year released her first film, “A Letter From Adam,” in which she stars as a woman who finds love in an unexpected way. “You need to do something positive with it, to give a voice (to) those who don’t have a voice.”
Forson notes how women in Ghanaian movies have largely been cast in one-dimensional roles in which an actress only had to be a pretty, light-skinned and tall to land a part. But with a greater number of women behind the camera, more pics are being made from a woman’s point of view. According to Forson, “Female artists are being taken more seriously.”
That shift is palpable in Frimpong-Manso’s work, in which women aren’t simply seen as wives and homemakers, or as silent, suffering foils for male protagonists. In “Scorned,” the heroine is an abused housewife whose search for vengeance — and independence — turns the tables on more stereotypical plotlines. In “Life and Living It,” assertive women take center stage, like the brilliant young defense attorney fighting a custody battle, or the accomplished, middle-age businesswoman who buys a car for her younger lover — a shocking role reversal in a country where men are typically viewed as the breadwinners. According to Frimpong-Manso, it’s her goal “to show a woman (who) can have a job, a husband, a child, (and) can make decisions.”
Central to the filmmaker’s career has been her keen business acumen in the face of the movie industry’s struggles. Ghana’s colonial-era theaters have been shuttered for years, and today there is just a single multiplex servicing a population of 25 million. With the country continuing to suffer through a protracted economic decline, moviegoing is considered a luxury for most consumers. Even the DVD sales that are the lifeblood of West African filmmakers have taken a hit.
“Where we used to sell 100,000 copies within a few weeks of release, now you’re lucky to sell 5,000 copies,” Frimpong-Manso says.
One strategy has been to tap into the lucrative market of nearby Nigeria, where a population of 170 million — and a growing number of cinemas — offers a vital platform for Ghanaian pics. Another has been to go further afield, where Frimpong-Manso has found a growing market through television networks like South Africa’s M-Net, France’s Canal Plus and nets targeting black audiences, such as the Africa Channel in the U.S. and OH TV in the U.K.
“These are people who want African content,” she says. “Our stories need to be able to cut across (borders).”