Film Review: Nigerian Prince

This consistently entertaining light drama about a first-generation Nigerian-American teen sent to Nigeria for a short stay with relatives offers an excursion into scamming, corruption and equally questionable family values.
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Under a newly minted U.S. government rampant with liars, dodgers and frauds, what could be timelier (though not healing) than debuting feature filmmaker Faraday Okoro’s vibrant dive into scamming, especially as all unfolds in Nigeria, the country most identified with such deception.

Nigerian Prince is a nonstop, anecdotal scam-o-rama whose title evokes the advance-fee fraud’s most familiar modus operandi: “Cash upfront, please, then millions will follow.”

With his pitch for Nigerian Prince, Okoro won the inaugural “AT&T Presents: Untold Stories” grant, which advanced him $1 million to make the film. The program, launched just a few years ago to ensure diversity in film, is a multi-tier alliance between AT&T, Tribeca and the Tribeca Film Institute that supports underrepresented filmmakers.

Okoro wisely drew his inspiration from his own experiences in Nigeria, thus adding invaluable insider’s authenticity to his work. The story has as hero Exe (Antonio J. Bell), a young, relatively innocent Millennial sent from America by his nurse mother to learn his roots. His sojourn, for an alleged one-month stay, has Eze, after a near-scam at the airport, now stuck in the stark, electricity-challenged hovel of his Aunt (from hell) Grace (Tina Mba), his mother’s sister, whose idea of hospitality suggests that of a roach motel.

With difficulties and without proper light or a reliable Internet connection, Eze tries to accept his new quarters. He soon encounters Pius (Chinaza Uche), his aunt’s estranged older son-from-hell, a serial scammer who is also an unannounced serial raider of his mom’s refrigerator. When Eze eventually learns that his own mother has planned all along for him to remain a year in Nigeria and his taxi driver father, also in America, refuses to take him back, Eze becomes desperate for money to fly home, so he teams up with his slippery cousin. Maybe his schemes will generate cash.

The misadventures in scamming pile up, including one in which Eze implicates unfortunate young Australian financial adviser Wallace (Craig Scott), who upon Eze’s previous arrival at the Nigerian airport saved him from being bilked by airport workers promising easy customs clearance. Among the other memorable and more complicated scams depicted is that called “black money,” which cons a sucker into paying thousands of dollars for a set of “expensive” chemicals that will remove black paint from millions of disguised U.S. dollars being illegally trafficked.

Along the way to Eze’s (maybe) salvation, Nigerian Prince delivers fine performances from all players and plenty of local color. Okoro demonstrates his craftsmanship in many areas (writing, directing, pacing, etc.). Also helpful is his use of music, thanks to the unobtrusive score from composers Peter Nashel and Eric V. Hachikian that kicks in at the right moments.

In addition to the major support from AT&T and Tribeca, Okoro had additional help from the NYU Production Lab, Spike Lee (who served as one of the film’s executive producers), and the Untold Stories Program’s awarding jury, which included producer-director Lee Daniels, actors Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Mackie, and HBO Films president Len Amato.

The grant also rewards the viewers who take time out of their lives and change out of their pockets to experience this jaunty trip into scoundrel country. But viewers are also somewhat short-changed. Character development and backstory needed more work and would have added to better, more engaged storytelling (e.g., why was Eze such a disappointment back home, and who is Pius beyond being an obsessive scammer?). How satisfying it would have been to enrich the characters in a film driven by the theme of getting rich. The twisty ending might have landed a bigger emotional punch—and a bigger payout.