Madu (2024)



It is a small school in Nigeria and the students are at recess. They are playing soccer, using an empty water bottle as a ball. All of them but one. In the far corner of the yard, Anthony Madu is doing a ballet dance all by himself. “Why is he dancing like a girl?” asks one of his classmates.

Anthony dances because that is who he is. When he isn’t dancing, his body seems shy, uncertain; when he does dance, it becomes certain, elegant, graceful. “Madu” tells the story of what happened after a short video of him dancing barefoot in the rain went viral last year leading to an invitation to study at an elite British ballet academy on a seven-year scholarship and starts with him packing up and saying goodbye. He gets his passport: “child student,” it says about him. His mom is glad for him but she knows she’ll miss him like crazy and we see him against the train window looking out at someplace unfamiliar; when he arrives, he calls home and her first question every mother’s first question is “Have you eaten?”

A few weeks later she tells him in their call that he’s speaking with a British accent now and his brother says “You’re talking like White.” We see how much Anthony misses his family but also that he feels this shared love of dance is another kind of home that’s just as good “Home is where you feel like you belong,” he says (meaning dance), but then adds home is also where your family lives.

We might have thought being from another country or culture would make Anthony feel isolated or even bullied maybe our own biases show here? but all of his classmates are nice to him and seem to include him easily in everything they do. Some of the sweetest moments in the film are watching Anthony just being himself laughing with friends during class or hugging them goodbye when they leave for summer break. Some of the most moving are seeing his parents watch his performance, via FaceTime, in Nigeria.

When the entering class is told they were chosen from among 500 applicants, it feels like one of those competitive dance movie details (it’s not a spoiler to tell you that a few kids are cut along the way), but the movie is nothing like those movies about mean dance teachers. The presence of the documentary cameras may be a factor, of course I hope it was but more than that: It doesn’t seem as if any one person involved in Anthony’s journey to and through London has a single mean bone in their bodies. A teacher tells the students that warmth in the muscles during practice is good but if it ever burns, they should stop; and when a serious health issue arises, both school and doctors are understanding and accommodating.

The documentary’s style is “fly on the wall.” Directed by Matthew Ogens and Joel Kachi Benson, the film includes occasional interviews with Anthony and his parents but no talking head experts. Charlie Goodger and Motheo Moeng’s cinematography is intimate and lyrical, with contemplative music that contrasts with the classical pieces accompanying the dance lessons and performance. In an opening scene, Anthony dances near a fire; his movements in the flickering light show us that he has a fiery spirit. Near the end, he is on the beach, wading into endless water stretching all the way to the horizon indicating this larger, more centered sense of himself and his passion for ballet made possible by access to teachers and other dancers, and a sense of possibility.

But like with boys at the center of documentaries like “Hoop Dreams” or “The Wolfpack,” focusing on those who are too young to have a nuanced understanding of what is happening to them or around them can make us feel both unsatisfyingly removed that we’re not being shown enough or what we most want to know as well as uncomfortably intrusive. Maybe any documentary about those who are underage should just be locked away until such time as they become old enough to watch it themselves and decide whether they want it seen at all.

In Anthony’s eloquence lies his movement. A telling moment comes when he is given an assignment to create a dance piece. Even if you’ve never looked at dancing before in your life, you see right away how extraordinary he is. His grace, balance and control are exceptional, his leaps take your breath away. The teachers evaluating him are warm in their encouragement; they praise his love of movement; gently they ask whether he had a story in mind No, maybe try imagining one? Given his real-life story’s complexity and near fairy tale improbability, it feels just fine that for now Anthony should be able to take a break from plot and revel in the pure abstraction of movement. With this documentary, we can appreciate his story and his relevé, and pirouette.

Watch Madu For Free On Gomovies.

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