To be black American is to be at once deeply rooted in and wholly disconnected from the continent of Africa. For first generation black Americans whose parents immigrated to the States from places like Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, it can feel even more disconcerting. There is an understanding of the culture and the language, yet there is still a sense of division-- even among family.
In 2017, writer/director Faraday Okoro received a $1 million grant from the inaugural AT&T’s Untold Stories program to produce his film Nigerian Prince. Set on the bustling streets of Lagos, Nigeria, Nigerian Prince follows Eze (portrayed by Antonio J. Bell), a sullen and internet addicted American teen who is shipped off to his parents' homeland after acting out at school. Evocative of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in an alternative universe, Eze finds himself adrift and under the care of his fearsome and determined Aunt Grace (Tina Mba). Determined to return home, Eze teams up with his captivating cousin Pius (newcomer Chinaza Uche), who just happens to be one of Lagos’ biggest con-artists.
For Bell, Nigerian Prince was a way to embrace his heritage and to stretch within his craft. “Funny enough, it was just like any other part," Bell said of his feature lead debut. "I auditioned for it. It was actually a busy week; I had like four or five other auditions on the same day. I was like, ‘I'm not getting this one.’ I’m not Nigerian; I’d never been anywhere near Africa. But I read for it, and I heard back like three days later and got a callback. Then I got another, and I spoke to Faraday and everybody, and I was signed onto the contract. It was really crazy."
Though family, connections and the true meaning of home are central themes in this humorous but intense film, scheming remains central. In Nigerian Prince, Prius has his hands in way more than a simple email scam. I asked Bell if he’d heard of the Nigerian prince emails or if he’d ever fallen victim to one. “Well it's funny because the year before [the film] I was buying an iPad for my daughter," he said laughing. “And there was a PayPal thing ... I was trying to pay somebody, but there was no PayPal account or website. It was like some kind of knockoff one from Africa. It was weird, nothing added up. When I figured out it wasn't real, I called PayPal. So I was aware of it loosely, but I didn't know what they were called before we did the movie."
Understanding the history of scheming in Lagos was the first part of Bell's journey into Eze’s world. The 26-year-old hadn’t ever left the country before signing on for Nigerian Prince. “It was wild!" he chuckled. “I didn't have a passport when I booked the film. That was like one of the highest things on the priority list. I had about eight weeks, which was just enough time to get it expedited for me. Then we went to Nigeria. It's just different, and I feel like most of the world is probably like this. It's not good or bad, but it's just really, really different."
Being entrenched in the culture of Lagos was a bit of a learning curve for Bell. “It was extremely fast-paced, "the Greenleaf star remembered. “A lot of stuff that we have in America, like standardized lanes and crosswalks don't really exist in some places, so if someone wanted to cross the street, they had to jet across the highway. Nigeria is super populated. It's like 190 million people in the country and 325 million people in America, but Nigeria is like the size of Texas."
Luckily Bell had a stellar guide in Okoro who, like Bell's character, was shipped to Lagos when he was a teenager for two years before returning to the States to attend Howard University. “One of the first things Faraday explained were the differences between Igbo and Yoruba," Bell revealed. “Half of our crew was Nigerian, so we were talking to each other every day. One of the big things I learned, too, was how accepting [Nigerians] are of us as African-Americans. There's this stigma that Africans don't accept us, but that wasn't my experience. Everybody I spoke to was very welcoming. That was the biggest takeaway I had — even though I'm not from there, it was still very much a part of who I am. What I noticed is everything I love about us as African-Americans, they do in Africa, as well. The way that we tell stories, the way that we laugh and joke and talk, how innovative we all are. The beauty that we find and the best qualities that we find in ourselves, you can really see a direct correlation to that in West Africa. Oh and puff puff! It's like a fried dough, almost like a beignet, but like a Nigerian version of it. Those were crazy, those were good! There was really, really dope food. Culturally, we're really the same."
Unlike Eze, who seems only motivated to bond with his cousin as a mean of escape, Bell was determined to really get to the core of his roots both literally and figuratively. “I took a DNA test, too, right before I left," he explained. “I came back mostly Nigerian. I'm 27 percent Nigerian, I believe 21 percent Ghanaian, and then it's like a bunch of other smaller countries. I’m about 83 percent African, and then I think like 13 percent European descent and 2 percent Asian. I learned a lot while working on Nigerian Prince. For me, it was about exposing stuff that was already there. I find that the characters I've been playing so far have been bringing out qualities or pieces of myself that are already there. We're all these wide arrays of colors, and for different characters, different projects or experiences in life, you have to be a different version or color of yourself. We're very complex beings, as people. So I was both Eze and even Roberto (Greenleaf) at different points of my life."
More than just a guide when it came time for Bell to be immersed in Nigerian culture, Okoro was also a meticulous director who knew exactly what he wanted in Nigerian Prince. “Faraday was dope," Bell reflected. “It was a collaboration. I hadn't done anything that was this intensive a character. So to be there every single day and get to learn more about what everybody brings to the table was an experience for me. Faraday is really focused and driven. He’d done his homework for his film. Some of the film is based on an experience he had when he was shipped over to Nigeria when he was young. Also, he and the film’s co-writer Andrew Long went out to Nigeria and stayed for a little bit. A lot of stuff that you see in the movie happened to either Faraday or Andrew at some point. They worked on the script for several years. I feel like Faraday really meditated and dreamed about these different shots and scenes. Then the people that they brought on, like our cinematographer, Sheldon Chau —he’s a really dope guy, and what he could do with the camera and light was just amazing. It's a whole other story to think about how all these people met and came together."
For Bell, getting the opportunity to star in Nigerian Prince was a life-changing experience. One that pushed him as an actor and as a human being; it was an adventure he won’t soon forget. “I feel like just the experience takes my work to another level," he said. “Having been there every single day and working all day every day on a film like Nigerian Prince, I get to come back to Greenleaf where it's not as intensive. In my process now, even though it may be one scene here, two or three scenes in an episode, I have that same preparation process that I've learned through Nigerian Prince that I can now apply to Greenleaf. Even knowing everything I know now working on Nigerian Prince — setting up different shots and everything that's happening behind the scenes — I can ask the right questions.”
Nigerian Prince premiered April 24, 2018, at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Greenleaf returns to OWN for its third season this summer.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s 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 find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.