As the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant, many of my formative years were spent trying to please my father. Though it was unspoken, I was expected to thrive both academically and socially. I dared not dream of following the crowd, and there was no wide berth given for any girlish teenage slip-ups. Luckily, I loved learning and school, so a great deal of the time I held up my end of the bargain. However, when I didn’t, when I wasn’t interested in taking a higher-level math course in high school or learning more about my Nigerian ancestry, a storm would brew between the two of us, incinerating everyone who stood in our paths.
In Yoruba, the phrase “dara ju” means “best,” and that was what my father wanted me to strive for. And in his feature-length directorial debut of the same name, director Anthony Onah explores what it means to cling onto that standard while experiencing immense pressure in every aspect of your life.
In “Dara Ju,” we meet 24-year old Seyi (played by Aml Ameen), a tightly wound and ambitious Wall Street trader who is finding it increasingly difficult to balance his two worlds. Through Onah’s use of tight frames that capture Seyi’s face and mannerisms, we watch as he travels from his tiny apartment in downtown Manhattan to the finance company where he works, Brown Harmon, each day. Dressed pristinely in tailored suits, Seyi is desperate to prove himself despite his coworkers undermining him at every turn. On the weekends, putting on his façade of the dutiful son, Seyi travels to his parents’ home in Hackensack, New Jersey where his mother and sister Funmi constantly care for his ailing and unyielding father.
Onah’s willingness to deal with the messiness of familial obligations is painfully refreshing in this film. Though his father is desperate to recover from his stroke in order to travel to his homeland once more, Seyi simply goes through the motions in terms of the care he affords his father, resenting the time and money spent caring for a man he no longer respects. It’s evident that some astronomical incident has created a gaping hole in their father/son relationship, and it seems beyond repair.
A rigid and unforgiving young man, particularly of himself, Seyi revels in his routine. He drinks the same brand of green tea constantly and pops Adderall pills frantically, in an attempt to stay productive and motivated in his high-stress work environment.
Seyi’s ideal life does not include his family or the duties that come with being a second-generation Nigerian-American. Though he often seeks the advice of an older man who works security in his office building, his arrogance and desperation to fit in ultimately lead to his downward spiral.
Slipping further away from his family, Seyi spends more and more time with, Elizabeth, a Columbia med student he is anxious to impress. Admittedly, their relationship puzzled me at first. For Seyi, Liz seems like some prize to be won, a trophy white woman on his arm that would somehow validate him amongst the Wall Street guys who continually dismissed him. For Seyi, Liz’s admiration erased both his burdens and his shortcomings.
And yet, more than anything, it is the richness of Onah’s characters that make “Dara Ju” so striking. While Seyi’s frustrations with his current circumstance are understandable, his selfishness often makes it hard to root for his success. Though he does help his family financially (when he feels up to it), he can’t seem to recognize that he is not the only one who is making sacrifices; his sister Funmi in particular, constantly picks up his slack. His superiority complex – including his assumption that he can beat the system, win over the girl, and forcefully shape his life into something that it’s not – makes for a very rude awakening as the film progresses.
Still, despite all of Seyi’s shortcomings, “Dara Ju” kept me riveted because I recognized myself in him. I understood his desire to be praised for working himself into the ground; to want a morsel of acknowledgment when you have worked twice as hard only to be shoved into the background. His mistakes, though egregious throughout the film, are not without justification.
“Dara Ju” is a film about pain, the pressure to flourish in the fast-paced 21st century while balancing self and traditional values, as well as a deep-seated betrayal that can’t be hidden under a fancy job title, fat bank account or token white girl. In the face of familial obligations, work responsibilities and constant racist micro-aggressions, Seyi cannot hope to maintain the façade that he has placed in front of his true self. After all, we cannot truly hide from the things we would rather brush under the rug; they will always find a way to seep back out, choking us from the inside until we deal with them head-on.
“Dara Ju” premieres today at SXSW.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami