'Nigerian Prince': Film Review

A novel take on digital swindlers.

An American teen gets an unwanted introduction to his Nigerian roots in Faraday Okoro's debut feature.

Persuasively imagining life on the other end of the emails that clog up spam filters worldwide, Faraday Okoro's Nigerian Prince gets to know one Lagos-based swindler through the eyes of an American relative who's forced to rely on him. In his feature debut, American director Faraday Okoro seems to know his way around both the place his story is set and the people who inhabit it, offering a film that feels authentic but should be wholly accessible to auds who pay far more attention to American indies than Nollywood imports.

Antonio J. Bell plays Eze, the U.S.-born son of two immigrants from Nigeria. A teen with no interest in his heritage (he has even transformed his exotic name, calling himself "Easy"), he's being sent by his mother to visit her homeland by himself, staying with his aunt Grace (Tina Mba). Had he known what his Aunty's home is like, Easy probably would have had to be put on the airplane by force: Grace has one bed that he'll have to share with her; has no shower and intermittent electricity; and doesn't have an internet connection. We get the feeling he's pretty sullen to begin with, but after getting the lay of the land, Easy turns all his energy toward sulking. And that's before he learns his mother has cancelled his return ticket, intending to teach him some life lessons with an indefinite stay.

As the film paints its American protagonist as incurious and all but incapable of helping himself, it introduces a cousin who never stops hustling: Pius (Chinaza Uche), Grace's estranged son, is an unrepentant scam artist who works everything from quick grifts to long cons. Played with gentle charisma by Uche, Pius has enough confidence and energy that Easy latches on to him as a possible way out. He ignores Grace's advice and starts hanging out with the slightly older man, asking to work for him so he can make enough cash to fly home. But as Pius introduces the boy to his world, we wonder if he's laying the groundwork to dupe his own kin. (An opening sequence at the city's airport has already shown Easy to be gullible, while priming us to view every helpful stranger in Nigeria as thief working an angle.)

As we wait to see what will happen between Pius and Easy, the movie offers some fairly familiar crime-flick complications: A corrupt local police chief (Bimbo Manuel) is putting the screws to Pius, telling him he must fork over money he doesn't have in just a few days. Pius weasels into a quick-cash scheme with his old con-man mentor (Toyin Oshinaike), and only gets into more trouble. Unlike most American films about this kind of character, there's very little vicarious fun in his crimes; Uche makes him entertaining to watch, but his rip-offs are just another job in this impoverished part of town. (A job so commonplace that a local internet cafe has a sign warning "No spam / No porn / No 419," referring to the part of the criminal code concerning scams.)

Aside from a pair of scenes where, puzzlingly, characters look straight into the camera as they argue with each other, Okoro's style is straightforward realism. As Pius's schemes get him closer to jail or the grave, Okoro occasionally treats him like the star of a suspense film (as when a long tracking shot follows him into a trap laid by undercover cops); but the pic grants Easy less agency, suggesting the adults are right to make some of his decisions for the time being. Lagos may be a strange place to send a kid who's at risk of trouble back home, and Aunty Grace has a poor track record when it comes to raising honest kids. On the other hand, as once-burned victims of Nigerian email scams might tell you, sometimes getting the rug yanked out from under you is the most effective path to wisdom.

Production companies: Tribeca, AT&T
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Antonio J. Bell, Chinaza Uche, Tina Mba, Bimbo Manuel, Craig Stott, Toyin Oshinaike
Director: Faraday Okoro
Screenwriters: Faraday Okoro, Andrew Long
Producers: Oscar Hernandez, Faraday Okoro
Executive producers: Biyi Bandele, Spike Lee
Director of photography: Sheldon Chau
Production designer: D'Vaughn Agu
Costume designer: Ari Fulton
Editor: Kristan Sprague
Composers: Eric V. Hachikian, Peter Nashel
Casting director: Avy Kaufman

In Ibo and English
104 minutes