Last year, NYU graduate student Faraday Okoro became the inaugural winner of the Tribeca Film Festival’s AT&T Untold Stories program, a competition designed to champion diverse artists who are underrepresented in mainstream cinema. Given that he’d only previously produced shorts, this triumph was a life-altering event for the 31-year-old New York-based Okoro, since the reward was $1 million to shoot his debut feature.
The only catch? He had to have it ready to premiere twelve months later at this year’s fest. And complicating matters further? His story was set in Lagos, Nigeria.
A year after securing that prize, Okoro has fulfilled his obligation with Nigerian Prince, a saga about dislocation, alienation, and the means by which those in uncomfortable (and desperate) circumstances define their identity. And though it’s rough around the edges in spots—a likely consequence of its rushed production under the stewardship of a relatively novice director—it’s not simply a success for having been completed; it’s a work that’s compelling and illuminating in its own right.
Nigerian Prince immerses itself in a particular criminal Nigerian underworld populated by scammers, and particularly focuses on one such individual, Pius (Chinaza Uche), whose favorite con involves sending out those infamous spam emails from wealthy Nigerian tycoons who will make you rich if you simply respond by providing some basic personal information. As Pius says at one point, if those frauds were duds, men like him wouldn’t waste their time perpetrating them in the first place. Still, while we hear him narrate some of those phony missives throughout the film, he’s a cheat who by and large likes to do his cheating in person. That’s born out by the amusing opening scene, in which he negotiates the sale of a Toyota sedan to a hesitant customer and then, after sealing the deal, takes off with cash and car in hand.
Pius executes his devious ruses with a big smile and cheery demeanor, which help him sell himself as trustworthy. He’s a streetwise man who’s been around the block more than once, and thus the opposite of Eze (Antonio J Bell), a Nigerian-American teenager born and raised in the States who departs his plane in Africa and immediately falls for an airport agent’s lie—which puts him out $10 that he only recovers thanks to the efforts of a kind Australian hedge fund manager (Craig Stott) he meets at baggage claim. Eze’s gullibility makes him a ripe target in this crime-ridden world. Thus, it’s fortunate that he winds up in the care of his no-nonsense aunt Grace (Tina Mba), in whose apartment he plans to reside for the next month.
The reason for Eze’s visit isn’t made clear until midway through Nigerian Prince, and even then, the explanation—that he’s being punished for a school fight, and also that his mother wants him to reconnect with his Nigerian roots—feels frustratingly tossed-off. Fortunately, the film’s narrative revolves less around why Eze is in this foreign land than how he intends to cope with his situation. With spotty electricity, a faulty cell phone, and no internet, Eze quickly finds himself a miserable fish out of water. And when he discovers that his stay is going to be quite a bit longer than four weeks, and that neither his mom nor dad will humor his pleas to return home, he increasingly becomes enticed by the crooked career of Pius—who, it turns out, is Grace’s disreputable son.
Eze is the audience’s proxy in Nigerian Prince, the endearingly naïve and displaced figure who slowly comes to learn about the day-to-day particulars of life in Lagos, which include taking baths rather than showers and lighting kerosene lamps to cope with power outages. Bell handles his role proficiently, but it’s Uche’s Pius who quickly becomes the charismatic center of attention. In his orchestration of a black money scam alongside partner Baba (Toyin Oshinaike)—which has the duo trying to convince dupes that dark construction paper is really American currency coated in gunk that can be removed with a special chemical concoction—Pius affords a window onto a unique illicit milieu. Not that Pius is a peerless pro; on the contrary, he’s a hustler struggling to make ends meet (hence his stealing food from his mom’s house), and also to ensure that police captain Smart (Bimbo Manuel) is happy, since the corrupt law enforcement bigwig demands a cut from Pius’s every job. And if he doesn’t get that money, or is double-crossed, dire punishment follows.
Co-written by Andrew Long (and executive-produced by Spike Lee, who served as Okoro’s NYU mentor), the film can occasionally be clunky, as when Eze’s mom bluntly tells Eze, “You’re there to learn who you are, and where you’re from.” And though its aesthetics are often no more competent, Okoro’s habit of situating Pius at the far edge (or in the corner) of the frame proves a subtle means of conveying both his isolation (especially from his mother) and his less-than-straightforward character. Even with its $1 million budget, Nigerian Prince looks like a low-fi affair, which can make its storytelling feel wobbly but allows it to capture an authentic sense of its underdeveloped settings.
More than its good-natured humor or intermittent suspense—both of which are encapsulated by an extended single take that tracks Pius through a parking lot as pursuers multiply around him—it’s newcomer Uche who truly enlivens Nigerian Prince. Not only faintly resembling Wesley Snipes but also exhibiting the star’s blend of mega-watt charm and ruthless menace, the actor is an arresting screen presence, capable of carrying the material’s primary dramatic load without resorting to overblown or affected theatrics. He’s a naturally magnetic performer, and in a scene that features Pius breaking down in tears outside an apartment door, only to then compose himself before anyone witnesses this moment of weakness, he locates the internal and external dichotomies at the heart of Okoro’s tale. Like Eze, his criminal ultimately seeks escape from his surroundings. If Hollywood were wise, it’d welcome the promising actor with open arms.