In the African-born community of the South Bronx, names like George Clooney, Woody Allen or “Seinfeld” might pass completely unnoticed.
A visit from actor Funke Akindele or a screening of “Living in Bondage”, on the other hand, might cause a small revolution.
Those are two of the biggest names in Nollywood, the successful $200 million dollar Nigerian movie industry, the third largest in the world. But don’t try to locate their movies in Blockbuster. For many outlets around the county, African Movies Mall, a sprawling storefront and warehouse in Melrose, is the place to go.
It started nearly 10 years ago, in a low-key, 200-square-foot shop on 165th St, near the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Today, African Movies Mall occupies two locations on 165th St, and they state proudly that they are the largest seller of African movies in New York City.
“People want to be around what they know,” said the store’s manager, Mohammed Nabiye. “Entering the store is like being back in Africa. The stories are ours, the names are ours.”
Owner Rabiu Mohammed, from Ghana, quickly found his niche in the African population of the Bronx when he opened the store in early 2002. Since then, African Movies Mall has expanded in correlation to its audience. The number of African-born Bronxites shot up more than two thirds, from 36,500 to 61,000, between 2000 and 2010, according to the American Community Survey.
That same year, African Movies Mall acquired a second location two numbers down the street. The once family-operated business slowly expanded its staff to 17 people who currently work there. Mohammed stepped down from managing the shop to focus more on scouting the African movie scene, leaving the day-to-day management in Nabiye’s hands.
Nabiye, who sported his country’s football jersey and flashed a never ending pearly-white smile, said he used to work in the movie industry back in Ghana.
“Working in a movie store just fits me,” said Nabiye, 31, who arrived in New York from Ghana in 2006 and started managing African Movies Mall a year later. “I am comfortable here,” he said. “Movies are what I know.”
Boxes pile up from floor to ceiling in the two locations on 165th St, ready to ship. Each contains a hundred DVDs, adding up to a total of around 300,000 in inventory. There is a room dedicated to one-on-one sales, where customers flip through the glossy covers with titles like “Passion of the Soul” and “Chasing Hope” printed in bright colors.
Most of the movies come from Ghana, Burkina Faso and, of course, Nigeria, the third most prolific film industry in the world, after the US and India. However, customers arrived from all corners of the continent. Eko, from Mali, has been a regular for years: “I come looking for the stories I understand, the ones that speak to me,” he said.
Mama Queenie, another Ghanaian who owns the African Queen Beauty Supply shop in the north Bronx, buys around $3,000 worth of DVDs per week to sell in her store.
“I sell movies because I love movies,” she said in a telephone interview. “Sometimes I am up until 3 a.m. watching them.”
But lately, African stories are reaching other communities within the South Bronx. Manuel, from Puerto Rico, stumbled upon the store and could not resist the urge to see what was on offer. He finally took home “Beyonce,” a Ghanaian love story that is the best selling movie in the store.
“I have never watched an African movie,” he said in Spanish while pondering over three different DVDs. “I am curious. It looks so different from what I usually watch,”
Nabiye said the business has also expanded the business off-shore, shipping to the Caribbean, Australia or the UK.
“Our titles might be different, but the themes – loss, fear, love – go beyond borders,” he said. “They are universal.”