We’ve all seen movies — like “Beirut,” with Jon Hamm — in which a trouble-shooting agent or foreign correspondent has to make his way through a scavenger nation that’s a nest of danger and instability and corruption. “Nigerian Prince” is one of those movies, except that the central character is no spy. He’s a surly American teenager named Eze (Antonio J. Bell), who arrives in the sprawling Nigerian capital of Lagos to spend four weeks with his aunt. Or so he thinks. His mother flew him over there so he could soak up his Nigerian heritage, which sounds innocent enough, until you learn that she canceled his return ticket the moment he arrived. Eze isn’t just visiting — he’s trapped. In a place with spotty electricity, hamburgers that taste like dog food, and people you can’t trust.
His first morning there, his Aunt Grace (Tina Mba) throws a bucket of water on him when he won’t get out of bed, and then she warns him that the next time it will be boiling water. (She sounds like she means it.) For a drama that’s all about a middle-class kid from the U.S. visiting the land of his ancestors, “Nigerian Prince” is no scrappy travelogue — it’s closer to a YA version of “Midnight Express.”
The movie was directed by the New York-based Nigerian-American filmmaker Faraday Okoro, and it’s the first feature to have been completed with a grant from the Tribeca Film Festival’s Untold Stories program (in collaboration with AT&T). The first thing to say about “Nigerian Prince” is that Okoro makes good on that backing. He creates a drama with a vivid and personalized sense of locale (the streets are alive), and he shows us how the characters emerge from it — like Pius (Chinaza Uche), a hustler with a grin of devastating sincerity, or Grace, played by Tina Mba with a scary stern fierceness that she somehow normalizes. Grace’s threatening personality grows right out of the harshness of Nigeria, a place where everyone is scrambling for cash, and you’re either toiling away at a dead-end job or have joined the underground culture of scam artists.
Pius, who is Eze’s cousin, has been a scammer for years, a role he wears lightly, even though it means his existence is controlled by Smart (Bimbo Manuel), an officer in the country’s nefarious police force who is basically a gang leader in uniform. Nigeria, as this movie presents it, is a nation of law and disorder. And Eze has to find a way out. It’s not just that the place is dangerous; we can see how the corruption saps his spirit. Yet he forms a connection with Pius, who could use a fellow hustler and promises to get Eze onto a plane out of the country. If this were a more sentimental movie, both young men might get what they were going for. As it is, only one does, leaving the other in the dust.
There’s one terrific scam sequence in “Nigerian Prince” (the title, in fact, refers to a classic scam). Pius goes to the hotel room of a businessman and tries to sucker him into the “black money” scam, which involves hundred-dollar bills coated with black paint, which can be removed by an expensive array of chemicals, which the mark has to pay for, and that’s the scam (since the bills are just construction paper). Everything about this sequence is terrific, including the surprise that caps it. Yet “Nigerian Prince” would have been better if we saw more of this stuff. Okoro has bent over backwards not to make the poverty-row version of a glib crime thriller, but he shouldn’t have bent so far.
That said, his refusal to provide us with the usual suspenseful payoffs creates its own disquieting social resonance. He’s saying that there’s no catharsis to this life — no ultimate score that lends it all meaning. It’s the scrambling-rat version of a hand-to-mouth existence. And any illusion of camaraderie is just another scam.