Wole Soyinka on Hollywood, Reparations, and Morgan Freeman

Wole Soyinka is the first African Nobel Prize winner in literature. A writer of prose, poetry, and drama, Soyinka has brought political engagement to the forefront of his work, levying wide-ranging critiques, ranging from apartheid to corruption in the government of Shehu Shagari. For this week’s episode of the New York Public Library Podcast, we’re proud to present Wole Soyinka discussing reparations, Hollywood, and being mistaken for Morgan Freeman.

Soyinka has written over two dozen plays over the course of his career. Asked about the effects of Hollywood on theater, he dismissed the claim that Hollywood has dealt a death knell to the stage:

“There is film, and there’s Hollywood. I must praise this. The positive side of Hollywood, the way that Nigerians took to the medium, that medium of film, is really remarkable, but for me not surprising. We can debate the quality from here to eternity. But the way it was adapted like a kind of extension of the narrative, storytelling, all storytelling, occasionally even painting is really remarkable. That has enabled, in fact, the improvement of quality, experimentation already begun, a greater consciousness of aesthetics which I think also derived from traditional art forms. I’m talking even about those horror scenes where special effects. Sometimes it’s comic, ridiculous. You can actually see what is being attempted and of course a few films have come out of it. But I don’t think that it signals the death of theater.”

Soyinka described how he came to advance one position on reparations:

“When the movement for reparations heated up, a real local was one of the inspirations for my proposal that, look, we’ll talk about reparations for slavery, reparations for imperialism, colonialism, despoilation, etc. Let’s do a deal. Let all the European robbers return all the artifacts they stole from Africa, and we’ll call it quits.”

As an internationally renowned artist, Soyinka is much-sought. He described numerous commitments, so many that, he explained, he enjoyed sometimes being mistaken for Morgan Freeman:

“You lose your anonymity. You lose your leisure. There is always a demand for one reason or another. In fact, things get so bad, I actually feel happy when I’m mistaken for Morgan Freeman… People come up to me and say ‘You must be the writer. No, Morgan Freeman! Can I have an autograph?’… It got so bad one day, that I had to sign Morgan Freeman for a family until they would leave me alone because they refused to accept. They were describing in fact a film I’d acted in, and they said, ‘How did you manage to get one woman. You were on that sign, and then you appeared on the other, in a totally different mood.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, we get trained for these things.'”

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