Hollywood and Nollywood — the prolific, still export-resistant Nigerian film industry — don’t so much meet as exchange business cards in “Black November,” an impassioned but inert social tract disguised only notionally as a high-octane terrorism thriller. While the presence upfront of Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke lends the initial impression of cheerfully cheesy exploitation fare, their contributions turn out to be marginal: Auds chasing cheap thrills will be caught off guard by this earnestly angry study of Nigeria’s corruption-riddled oil industry, superficially bracketed by a standard-issue, Los Angeles-set hostage drama. Sadly, Jeta Amata’s film proves plodding and sanctimonious in either register.
Finally getting a multiplatform release after languishing on the shelf since 2012 — following a premiere at the United Nations, no less — “Black November” (titled “Rise Up” on the copy viewed by this critic) won’t draw much international attention to its home country’s plight. With any luck, however, even modest exposure for this Nigerian-American co-production may encourage more native filmmakers to try. Certainly, it’s a stronger showcase for local talent than it is for its more famous names. Twenty-nine years and several worlds removed from the heat of “9 1/2 Weeks,” Rourke and Basinger make little effort to crease their cardboard roles, while Mbong Amata (the helmer’s wife) is more invested and persuasive as the pic’s bait-and-switch protagonist, Ebiere.
A community-minded 21-year-old activist, Ebiere enters the film as more of a concept than a character: Having been imprisoned and sentenced to death for leading a local rebellion against oil companies in the Niger River Delta, she is the symbolic cause driving a group of explosives-wielding Nigerian militants to lock down an L.A. road tunnel, taking several pre-selected Americans — including Rourke’s callous oil baron and Basinger’s headline-hungry journalist — hostage in the process. Courtesy of some rather blunt cross-cutting, the film takes only 10 minutes to establish this setup, though matters decelerate considerably as the focus shifts to Ebiere.
Detailed in starchy flashback, the blossoming of the young woman’s political consciousness — via a U.S. college education granted to her, with boldfaced irony, by an oil-company scholarship — forms the bulk of the narrative, as a lethal gas explosion in her local village prompts her to lead an increasingly dangerous stand against both the American corporations plundering the region’s natural resources and the government bodies permitting them to do so. Hers is a story of multiple melodramatic turns (as well as some half-cocked romantic ones), but despite Amata’s intelligent performance, Ebiere is too unflaggingly noble and on-message a figure for the film to arouse sustained interest as character study.
Indeed, as Ebiere’s arc slumps into ever-glummer territory, viewers may find their attention wandering to the more superficial but more urgent goings-on in the City of Angels, where a genre premise that could sustain an entire feature has been rather gauchely formatted as a mere framing device. The dramatic compression of the entire enterprise results in some amusingly direct shorthand dialogue — “Give peace a chance,” Ebiere actually pleads at one point — as well as a few characterizations so briefly developed as to be bewildering. Vivica A. Fox is shamefully wasted as an upstanding U.S. government official, but her screen time is positively extravagant compared to that of Anne Heche, whose presence many viewers may miss entirely. (Also filling roles smaller than their names are musicians Wyclef Jean and Akon, whose label KonLive had a hand in the film’s production.)
Basinger, essentially playing a cut-rate twin of Rene Russo’s devious newswoman in “Nightcrawler,” is left stranded in the second half, though at least Rourke’s villainous turn answers the question of where Nigeria’s oil is being expended: A good half of it appears to have gone into his corporate-cad hairdo.
Tech credits are competent if rarely inspired, with the soundtrack over-reliant on crossover R&B empowerment ballads with markedly literal lyrics; more rousing ethnic beats would have been entirely welcome.