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.

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