Black KkKlansman (2018)

With the release of Black KkKlansman, Spike Lee once again steps into his rightful place as a maker of bluntly provocative (and, incidentally, hilarious) films about race in America. The film follows the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), one of the first black police officers in Colorado Springs. Apparently on whim, Stallworth calls an advertised number for information on the KKK, posing as a white supremacist, and strikes up a rapport with the local chapter president Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold). Stallworth eventually infiltrates the local chapter with the help of his sergeant and white detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who acts as Stallworth in face to face meetings, eventually working his way all the way up to conversations with David Duke (Topher Grace) himself.

As with this year’s Sorry to Bother You, Black KkKlansman is very much about the nature of voice and the formation of identity out of voice. Ron speaks for himself – or rather, the white man he’s pretending to be – over the phone, while Flip has to speak for him in person. In one telling exchange, Ron and the police chief argue over Flip’s ability to sound like him, the chief implying that Ron’s voice must be far different from Flip’s simply because of his race. “Some speak the King’s English, some speak jive, and I happen to be fluent in both,” says Ron. But as a character, he’s not entirely comfortable in either milieu – he has difficulty matching the proper rhetoric in an initial meeting with a black student organization, and he ultimately has to teach Flip to sound more like him. The layers are multitudinous – Ron is performing as a white man, but he’s using his own voice; Flip, a white man, has to sound like a black man speaking “white.” Those separations of identity and how voice and identity coalesce is fundamental to the film – David Duke (Topher Grace) claims that he can tell simply by someone’s speech whether they are black or white. Ron is both cop and black man; not a “pig,” as his girlfriend Patrice (Laura Harrier) claims, but a cop, and also uncomfortable in his treatment at the hands of other white cops. Flip’s identity, in turn, is split between performing as Ron with the KKK, a world where he’s treated as a friend and brother, his identity as a Jewish man (which, until the job, he claims never formed much of an identity), and his personal, apparently non-racist beliefs.

Black KkKlansman situates itself where the real story occurred – in 1970s Colorado Springs. So often stories about racism in America occur either in inner cities or in the deep South; here, to a 2018 audience, we have a story in the “real America” of the Midwest, in a relatively safe liberal enclave, in which the KKK are the smiling next door neighbors. This is most clearly emphasized in the form of Connie Kendrickson (Ashlie Atkinson), the wife of a KKK member and a Midwest homemaker who becomes instrumental in the film’s final act. The result speaks clearly to white liberal America, that the people beneath the hoods are not others in some distant or backward past, but our friendly, innocuous neighbors.

Lee employs a blunt arc under which he conceals layers of characterization and complexity, drawing very clear parallels between the 1970s narrative and America in 2018. And the references he makes are not ahistorical – “America First” was indeed a rallying cry of white supremacists, and it has also been employed by Trump. David Duke himself has been a recent feature in American politics, endorsing Trump’s candidacy and speaking openly about the rise of white supremacy during the Nazi march in Charlottesville. The parallels between the contemporary moment and the events of the film are made explicit – a chilling speech by Ron’s sergeant hammers this home – but more than that, this is about the development of white supremacy in America. Posters of Richard Nixon are on the walls of a clubhouse during a KKK rally, a brief reminder that Nixon was the one to institute the “Southern strategy” and solidly identifying the formation of the modern GOP with support from white supremacists. David Duke wanted to make the KKK a viable political entity, and has done just that, normalizing that which should be abhorrent.

As with many of Lee’s works, media is as culpable in its representation of race as people themselves.  The movie opens with a sweeping Technicolor shot as a Confederate flag waves above fallen soldiers, and a pivotal scene includes the KKK chapter watching, and cheering on, Birth of a Nation, a film credited with giving new life to the KKK. David Duke references Gone with the Wind as support for his beliefs, and Ron and Patrice discuss the depiction of black people as cops and pimps in films like Shaft and Superfly. Blaxsploitation references abound in camera techniques and music. The importance of cinema and how it represents race and reinforces or comments on racial prejudice runs throughout the film, reminding us that film does indeed have power to reignite racial hatreds, and provide inspiration for revolution. Lee is giving his audience a film history lesson in American racism, in white supremacy and racial conflict, in the Black Panthers, and in the responsibility of media itself in the portrayal of both black people and the KKK.

Black KkKlansman speaks to people who already agree with its central point, which is both its strength and its weakness. It plays like a call to arms, to stand up against racism not in the abstract past but in the here and now, by emphasizing just how dangerous the KKK truly are. The white police officers and even Ron himself initially downplay the danger the KKK poses – Flip dismisses them at first as grandstanders, hicks with nothing better to do. But as the film proceeds, we see the reality of the “organization,” in the charismatic and horrifying presence of David Duke, in the KKK’s willingness to use violence and intimidation to achieve their ends, and in their complexities of racial biases, theories, and hatreds. “They aren’t The Beverly Hillbillies,” says Flip after his first meeting with the local Klan. The film runs the gamut, showing us both the stupid “hicks” and the charming, “respectable” men like Duke and the country club set. It even establishes some Klan members as apparently “normal” men, all of them with regular jobs, some of them military. The film represents the KKK as being more than just a bunch rednecks playing dress-up. They are a group of people hysterically dedicated to subjugating and then eradicating everyone they deem of a “lesser race” (here, the film avoids making this a solely black/white issue, and spends some time on depicting the Klan’s hatred of pretty much everyone not of white European descent).

Lee employs all of his considerable skill and filmmaking prowess, developing a narrative that is at once blunt and nuanced, horrifying and funny in the most unexpected ways. It shows the soul-eating nature of racism without asking us to sympathize with racists. There’s little joy to be found among the members of the Klan, all of whom seem to spend most of their free time talking about how much they hate everyone else. But Black KkKlansman pulls no punches, at one point cutting between a Klan inauguration celebration and the black student union listening to a talk by an elderly man who witnessed a friend mutilated, lynched, and burned. The images of the lynching are juxtaposed with the seething hatred of the Klan in its faux Christian pomp and circumstance, bringing home the reality of violence, the reality of hatred, the deep-seated racial divisions at the heart of America. It reminds us that, for all that they might seem ridiculous, the Klan is real and powerful and violent, a true danger, a true force for evil. And beneath those hoods are men and women that we stand next to in the grocery store, and that now sit in the White House.

Black KkKlansman opens nationwide today.

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The Firemen’s Ball (1967)

Milos Forman’s bizarre political comedy The Firemen’s Ball is as well-known for the controversy surrounding its release in 1967 as it is for its content. But the content shouldn’t be ignored—The Firemen’s Ball is a brilliant film, its understated comedy inherent in the events as a group of firemen throw a ball in their small town, where they plan to award their former chairman a ceremonial axe.

The Firemen’s Ball is about bureaucracy run amok, as the governing committee are unable to make such simple choices as what girls to put in a beauty contest or how to run a lottery without resorting to roundabout discussions and payola from concerned mothers, fathers, and boyfriends. As “the people” get drunker and rowdier, the committee breaks down—those tasked with guarding the lottery watch as more items disappear, while the discussions over who is to present what and when comes nearer to fisticuffs. The whole thing culminates in a ridiculous attempt at having a beauty contest in which all the contestants refuse to go onstage.

This is absurdism at its finest. The film is shot through with the darkest of Czech humor—everyone, from the committee to the people to the landscape itself is the butt of a joke, representative of petty rivalries, drunken idiocy, and smug leadership that cannot lead. Forman’s roaming camera captures faces young and old as they slowly devolve into drunkenness and competition, the disgust of young women for the group of old men trying to figure out how to judge their beauty, the palpable sense of the absurd. While the film never explicitly attacks the Communist party, it is self-evidently a condemnation of the bureaucracy, corruption, and squabbling within Czechoslovakia at the time.

The Firemen’s Ball plays like a documentary, with the camera catching the apparently unguarded moments of the crowd. Many of the actors are non-professional (most of the firemen are played by actual firemen from the town), and the humor of the film lies in even its extremity being believable—none of the slapstick elements are overplayed or come off as merely comic vignettes. As the ball breaks down into absurdity and chaos (including an actual fire), the underlying commentary lies in the ineptitude of the firemen to accomplish even the smallest tasks. The fact that it doesn’t purport to be a pure allegory (of Communism, of Czechoslovakia) means that the film extends itself to universality—it encompasses a petit bourgeois smugness and bureaucratic nonsense that would say as much about the United States or Soviet Russia as it does about Czechoslovakia.

After the release of The Firemen’s Ball, Forman left Czechoslovakia to discuss financing the film, and the Soviets invaded. The film was “banned forever,” Forman chose to remain outside the country, and The Firemen’s Ball was eventually nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. With a scant running time of barely more than an hour, it stands up as one of the finest, funniest political allegories ever filmed and a seminal event in the Czech New Wave.

The Firemen’s Ball is available to stream on FilmStruck.

Phenomena (1985)

Dario Argento’s Phenomena opens with the brutal murder of a schoolgirl, somewhere in Swiss Alps, by a…well, something chained in a room in a remote cabin. Things just get weirder from there. The film mostly follows Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a famous actor, who arrives in Switzerland to attend the Richard Wagner Academy for Girls (yes, really), where a bunch of violent murders have been taking place. One night, Jennifer sleepwalks and witnesses a murder, then stumbles onto the home of Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), a disabled etymologist with a chimpanzee helper, with whom she forms a close friendship (both the professor and the chimpanzee). McGregor discovers that Jennifer has a telepathic connection to insects and realizes that this connection might be the key to finding the killer.

Phenomena is a rare Argento film in the sense that it doesn’t spend all that much time dwelling on the visual poetry of murder. While there are the hallmarks of giallo, especially in the opening scene, the film is more interested in exploring the bizarre affinity between Jennifer and the insects than it is in focusing on the quest for the killer. And for that, it’s actually a refreshing experience. There are some excellent set pieces, including one scene where Jennifer summons the help of flies to defend her from bullies, as well as the usual giallo staples of sudden, violent deaths with bright red blood and rolling heads. But Phenomena is less soaked with atmosphere than some of Argento’s more popular works—there is the play of light and dark, but none of the flights of color and fantasy that come into movies like Tenebrae or Inferno. There’s also a heightened emphasis on characterization and dialogue, especially between McGregor, Jennifer and, um, the chimp. The music here is slightly less haunting than Suspiria, though it does emphasize Argento’s style, with bursts of head-banging rock and shrieking chords to underline apparently banal moments.

What is most surprising about Phenomena is how slow-moving and creepy it is, avoiding more explicit acts of violence in favor of building tension and character. Then the third act happens. For experienced Argento viewer, you know that his films tend to get very weird in the third act, with the build-up to the denouement usually more coherent than the actual climax. But Phenomena really does stand by itself, both for artistry and total, batshit insanity. The solution to the mystery is definitely there and it does make sense – kind of – but the sudden plunge into excess is jarring and, in its own way, curiously delightful. It should suffice to say that everything the film has introduced along the way does pay off – including an incongruous scene involving the chimp – and does so in maddest way possible.

Phenomena has been criticized for its rather limited performances and unclear resolution—and certainly Jennifer Connelly became a better actress as she grew up. Pleasence is delightful, however, and has great chemistry with the chimp, herself a very prominent player in the film. And Phenomena is no worse in terms of acting than any other Argento film—giallo is rarely known for great performances, after all.

While Suspiria and Deep Red are works of art, Phenomena feels more intensely personal, as though Argento has dropped any pretense of what’s expected of him and is simply doing what he wants. Phenomena is something like an amusement park ride that sails along pleasantly but uninterestingly, and then drops you fifty feet down. You know it’s coming, but it’s still quite a stomach-churning experience.

Phenomena is available to stream on Shudder

Downhill (1927)

When we think of Hitchcock’s early work, we tend to focus on the thrillers, usually starting with The Lodger in 1927 and, skipping a number of films, onto movies like The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes. His other films from both the silent and sound eras generally get short shrift, representative, at best, of the building blocks of the Master’s career and little else. It’s rare for anyone to note the fact that Hitchcock made melodramas, adapted plays, comedies, and even a musical. And some of this inattention is because the films don’t easily fit into an auteurist model, but these films have floated around in bad public domain prints for years, their picture blurry, and sound (where there is sound) muddled. But thanks to FilmStruck and the Criterion Collection, we finally get a chance to see halfway decent prints of Hitchcock’s earliest available works, and discover that there was much more to the Master than his murderous masterpieces.

Downhill is only Hitchcock’s fifth credit as a director, and came out the same year as the far more famous The Lodger. It also stars Ivor Novello, here taking on the lead role as Roddy Berwick, a schoolboy who becomes entangled with Mabel (Annette Benson), a waitress at the school. Mabel is also having a fling with Roddy’s friend Tim Wakely (Robin Irvine), and arrives in the headmaster’s office and to accuse the wealthier Roddy of impregnating her. Roddy denies it but, knowing it’s Tim’s child, decides to take the blame. He’s promptly expelled from school and then from the home of his father Sir Thomas Berwick (Norman McKinnel), starting his “downhill” journey into poverty as he becomes an actor and later a gigolo.

On the surface, Downhill looks like a moral tale so beloved in the silent era, about avoiding fast women and loose morals. Certainly all of the hallmarks are there: we know that Mabel is a bad girl leading young men astray as she works several jobs, flirts with students, and wears far too much mascara. Roddy’s crime is not really his involvement with her, but his naiveté. He really is innocent and even honorable, at first—he refuses to expose Tim and get the latter kicked out of school. But Roddy ceases to be a victim as time goes on—after leaving home and becoming an actor to pay the bills, he comes into an inheritance from his godmother, which he promptly spends on marriage Julia (Isabel Jeans), who spends him into oblivion. His trajectory is more about his personal exploitation and naiveté than it is about any crimes he’s committed, but he’s far from innocent. He was involved with Mabel, even though he’s not the father of her child; he’s warned about Julia’s frivolity and affairs; he consistently turns to more disreputable ways of earning his money, although he never descends into crime. Roddy’s downward spiral is a version of feminine narrative, in which the girl goes from riches to rags, usually turning to prostitution. Roddy instead becomes an actor and then a gigolo, culminating in a nightmarish scene in a Parisian nightclub that should be seen as one of the finest in silent cinema.

Hitchcock’s style is very much in evidence here, especially the early influence of German Expressionism. Brief scenes, as when Roddy goes down into the Underground after being cast out from his father’s house, and again as his shadow casts across the stairs as he ascends to his apartment, recall images from Nosferatu and Metropolis, while the club scene owes a debt to The Last Laugh. There’s no doubt that this is a young filmmaker experimenting with what the camera and the frame can do, but there’s an assuredness to the images that reminds us that Hitchcock never used flourishes without a purpose. It’s all in service to the narrative, to telling a visual story through Roddy’s eyes. Most impressive is the use of POV shots, during a sequence in which Roddy sinks into delirium as he’s taken on board a ship. The camera stumbles down stairs, stares up at masts as the frame multiplies, and finally descends into hallucinogenic reveries as Roddy replays his experiences. The film largely lacks title cards, with large swathes of dialogue elided over in favor of information conveyed solely by the image. Novello’s performance likewise shows influence of Expressionism, as he casts his body against vaulted closet doors, or becomes slowly bowed as he sinks further into poverty. In such an otherwise dark narrative, it’s a pleasure to note that there’s a good bit of Hitchcockian humor on display, with visual jokes and sleight of hand that will become more developed over the course of his career.

But Downhill shouldn’t be viewed as an interesting footnote. It is deserves to be considered on its own merits, as a part of Hitchcock’s oeuvre that does not cleanly fit into the thriller model. This is a great director making a great film, not a fledgling director who will go on to great things. There’s genius here, and it belongs to Downhill.

Downhill is available to stream on FilmStruck

House 2 (Tribeca 2018)

In November 2005, in Haditha, Iraq, twenty-four unarmed Iraqi civilians were shot in a small back bedroom in what would become known as “House 2.” After the deaths were brought to the attention of a Time magazine reporter, and then to the NCIS, it became clear that these deaths were not civilians caught in crossfire, or insurgents fighting with Marines, but innocent men, women, and children killed deliberately and at close range. But out of an entire team of Marine responsible for clearing houses after an IED explosion and subsequent shooting, only one soldier, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, was indicted on multiple counts of murder.

Director Michael Epstein crafts a deeply disturbing documentary with House 2, which follows Wuterich’s legal team as they prepare for his trial, the most expensive in military history. Crossing over interviews with defense attorneys, NCIS investigators, and Wuterich himself, the film pieces together a case and explains, in precise detail, what they know and don’t know about what happened in House 2. The film intercuts video from the aftermath of the shooting, taped transcripts of witness testimony, and images taken by one soldier to document what they found when they entered the house. It’s a horrifying and far-reaching chapter in the War on Terror, an expose of violence, with the  question of who killed those people, and why, at its center.

The murkiness of the case is evident from the outset—the murders weren’t investigated until six months after the fact, when it became clear that Time would run a story about the incident. The NCIS investigation was interfered with by higher command, immunities handed out to other members of the team in order to obtain their testimony against Wuterich. Wuterich himself is an enigmatic figure—he’s shown at home with his wife and children, always claiming that he doesn’t know what happened in House 2, because he can’t actually remember. His own legal team believe their client is being railroaded into taking responsibility for the murders in order to avoid a scandal similar to the My-Lai massacre. What he actually knows, or remembers, is unclear—he neither admits to committing the crime, nor does he explicitly implicate anyone else.

What does become clear over the course of House 2 is the spectacular miscarriage of military justice. There’s no doubt that the film takes a particular angle on the events—there are no interviews with prosecuting attorneys, and no representatives of Marine command, save for Wuterich himself and his defense team. This doesn’t completely skew the perception of the case, however, though I would have liked to hear something from the other side. The presence of two NCIS investigators helps to balance the narrative, as they present their accounts of how they carried out their investigations, and where they were told to stop by higher-ups and the gaps that the prosecution and the defense attempted to fill.

House 2 is an absorbing, infuriating documentary, difficult to watch. It brings the viewer close to the events with images of the murdered women and children examined in forensic detail. The investigators attempt to establish how many shooters there were, where they might have stood, how they would have committed the crimes. The film doesn’t flinch from showing the humanity of the victims, the investigators, the Marines, and the attorneys, forcing the viewer to reckon not just with the forensic evidence, but with the reality of human life purposelessly cut short.

The downside to a film being as well-put-together as House 2 is that it can occasionally come off as an entertaining thriller rather than a documentary examining a disturbing and far-reaching event in America’s military history. There are a few revelations introduced late in the film that seem to be present more for dramatic value than in the service of telling the story. But because the film makes use of contemporary footage, it seems to play out as more information comes out. Wuterich’s legal team change their approach to the case regularly, trying to reconcile contradictory evidence and the behavior of a prosecutorial team that seem to be playing by a different set of rules. What comes out is the way that military justice is manipulated and abrogated to avoid culpability for the deaths of so many innocent people.

House 2 elucidates the degree to which Iraqi lives have been dispensable in the so-called War on Terror, and the degree to which even military lives will be thrown under the bus in service to buoying a desirable narrative. But in the end, a group of unarmed women and children were murdered in their beds by Marines “clearing” a house. That is itself a scathing indictment of the War on Terror, and the atrocities still being committed in its name.

House 2 is currently at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Mapplethorpe (2018)

Director Ondi Timoner’s new biopic turns the camera on Robert Mapplethorpe, the artist who revolutionized art photography in the 1970s and 80s, raising controversy with his images of hardcore BDSM juxtaposed against tender portraits of calla-lillies and celebrity portraits. Mapplethorpe looks at the life of the artist from his relationship with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), his time at the Hotel Chelsea, fascination with gay BDSM, and the permutations of his art until his death at the age of 42. Through his images and relationships with friends, lovers, family, and ultimately to the art itself, Mapplethorpe attempts to elucidate a contradictory, contentious subject.

Matt Smith’s performance as the central character is Mapplethorpe’s greatest strength. He embodies the conflicts that the film lays out. He’s charming and funny, vicious and unkind, loving to his subjects and exploitative of them in the same breath. He toes the line between exploitation and appreciation, such that it seems he does not fully understand his behavior. As he ages and becomes ill, he delves deeper in the light and dark, becoming more demanding of those around him and crueler in his behavior. Smith’s physical investment in the role is almost Expressionist, recalling Conrad Veidt’s total embodiment of his parts. Mapplethorpe blends with his own images, pressed between the light and the dark, the violent and the tender. The film’s often spectacular cinematography lends itself to this portrayal, as the colorful vibrancy of New York in 1969 gives way to black and white palettes of the 1980s that finally wash out the central character, turning him into a walking specter. Smith forces us to acknowledge the brilliance of the artist and the gentleness of his touch while at the same time seeing his cruelty and self-interest. And the film doesn’t excuse Mapplethorpe’s behavior – it simply seeks to represent it.

But for a film about so revolutionary a subject, Mapplethorpe remains oddly chaste in its onscreen depiction of male nudity, homosexuality, and BDSM. While it doesn’t shy away from showing Mapplethorpe’s image, in effective intercuts of the actual photographs, it coyly cuts away from sex scenes, avoids filming Matt Smith (or almost anyone) in full body shots, and reduces Mapplethorpe’s friends and lovers in the BDSM community to barely realized characters. Surely these men were more than just images, either to Mapplethorpe himself or in their own right. Surely they had personalities, thoughts, experiences of their own. In the middle of the film, a friend tells Mapplethorpe, “They must really trust you,” but we never see how he earned that trust, how his friendships developed, or how he staged these images in the first place. The film’s unwillingness to truly engage with Mapplethorpe’s subjects, and thus avoiding dealing with its own subject, makes it feel slight – the people photographed become just images, body parts, and we never see them as full characters.

In fact, the entirety of Mapplethorpe is slight, avoiding too much investigation of who Mapplethorpe is or what his art meant, either to himself or to the wider culture. His relationship with Patti Smith flames out, and she almost immediately becomes a nonentity, a person solely there to drive him from one aspect of his art to the next. There are little indications of the artist’s psyche—he relates the conflict and symbiosis between his Roman Catholic upbringing and his homosexuality and interest in bondage, and more than once remarks that his art must be viewed as a totality, hardcore images as well as the more “palatable” flowers and portraits. The juxtaposition of his portraits of celebrities and still-lifes of flowers with hardcore images, his interest in photography “as an artist” that never extends to learning how to develop the photographs himself, the very light and dark of his images…all of them provide interesting fodder for an exploration of a deeply conflicted artist producing deeply conflicted art, yet the film never follows through on any of them, instead leaving the deeper themes at the peripheries, content more to delve into one man’s suffering than to examine his work. While I don’t think we needed an explanation of Mapplethorpe as a person or an artist—those are always pat and ineffectual, even in the best biopics—there needed to be greater exploration of what he meant as an artist, what his art meant to the developing scene of the 70s and 80s, what furor he caused. We are told he was revolutionary, but we never shown why.

In some ways, Mapplethorpe is as much a contradiction as the man himself, a film that wants to investigate both art and artist, and yet can’t quite come to terms with either. There is so much hanging at the peripheries, begging to be examined, that one wishes the camera would shift focus just a little, to look at those people, themes, desires, fears that made Mapplethorpe what he was. Maybe it’s impossible to truly reveal the artist through a different medium than the one he employed, maybe the art must simply speak for itself. But it would’ve been nice to see this film try.

Mapplethorpe is currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

Nigerian Prince (2018)

Cinephiles enjoy quoting the factoid that Nigeria has one of the biggest film industries in the world, on par with and often exceeding both Hollywood and Bollywood. But unlike Bollywood, which has had some success in exporting films across the Atlantic, Nollywood films rarely cross to America (despite being deeply popular across Africa). Nigerian Prince, the first full-length feature by director Faraday Okoro, is not a Nollywood film per se, but it pushes American viewers to reckon with our relationship to Nigeria, and perhaps to begin to treat Nigerian and Nigerian-American cinema with the respect it deserves.

Nigerian Prince focuses on two cousins, Eze (Antonio J. Bell) and Pius (Chinaza Uche), who meet in Nigeria when the American-born Eze is sent to stay with his aunt Grace (Tina Mba), Pius’s mother. Eze thinks he’s just in Nigeria for a few weeks, but soon learns that his mother has arranged to keep him there for much longer, enrolling him in school to, as she says, learn “where he comes from.” Eze protests—he’s an American, not a Nigerian, and rebels at being basically forced to remain in a country to which he has no connection. Pius, meanwhile, has become a barely successful scammer—both by email and in person—and has run afoul of a corrupt police chief Smart (Bimbo Manuel), to whom he owes a great deal of money. As the two cousins become more embroiled with each other, Pius begins to see a way clear of both his own and Eze’s troubles.

Nigerian Prince takes on two stories: a fish out of water narrative, and a crime thriller, converging them as Pius “teaches” his younger cousin about Nigeria. But it also escapes the clichés of a young man learning about his heritage, embroiling Eze deeper in Pius’s problems without romanticizing Nigeria or its inhabitants. There is no aha moment when Eze falls in love with the country he’s never known or had particular attachment to—rather, he learns how to live differently, and how to understand the far murkier depths of morality. Pius explains that his scamming isn’t really stealing, because those he scams always willingly part with their money. As we see this in action, it’s easy to be charmed by Pius (thanks to Uche’s excellent performance) when he convinces a greedy American that he can become rich by washing “black money,” actually just rectangles of construction paper. Pius is good at his job, but he also has difficulty navigating the degrees of corruption within his world and reconciling it to his basic decency. He’s not as good as he thinks he is, or so it seems.

The film’s greatest flaw comes in its third act, as Pius’s story becomes a central focus, pushing Eze to the background. We meet a few characters—like “Bimbo” (Crystabel Goddy), one of Eze’s classmates—who vanish as quickly as they appear onscreen, making the narrative occasionally feel unfinished. Eze’s story stops being a concern, his character only important insofar as it provides Pius with an opportunity to pay off the price on his head. This shift of focus doesn’t wholly damage the film, but it does mean that we begin to forget that this story started off about one character and has become about another, so when the final payoff comes, it’s hard to feel great emotional investment.

But it’s hard—very hard—not to get sucked into Pius’s story. Okoro has a deft touch with the camera, treating the streets, the countryside, and even the darkened alleys with a mixture of fear and love, a recognition of Nigeria’s complexity in the images of poverty and wealth, and in the character of Pius. Pius is charming, erudite, a talented con artist who begins to con the audience as well, transforming fluidly according to his situation. He’s untrustworthy, but he’s also scamming himself, constantly claim that he can survive if he does just one more scam, sends one more email, gets just one more day. He wants success in his field, but he has a conscience; he can convince himself that he’s not really stealing, and also knows when he’s taking someone for a ride. His relationship with Eze is untrustworthy because it’s impossible to know what he’s really going to do, if he’s really going to scam his cousin, if he’s really going to hurt someone he comes to care for. That tension, the danger that Pius represents and that even he does not seem to fully control, is one of Nigerian Prince’s most deceptively simple features.

And like Pius, Nigerian Prince pulls you in, charms you, and tells you a complex and powerful story without losing itself. The film draws no clear moral conclusions, no clear solution as to what, or who, is right or wrong. While it stumbles on occasion, Nigerian Prince is a damn fine film, from a director who should be watched.

Nigerian Prince has its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 24.