A Tribe Called Judah

A Tribe Called Judah, Reviewed: A Box Office-Breaking Heist of Authenticity & Heart

Funke Akindele’s dramedy of five brothers who embark on robbery to save their ailing mother, thoughtfully written by Collins Okoh, proves something we already know: Nollywood is at its best when telling authentic stories — which is why this became its first film to make N1 billion.
4.5/5
A Tribe Called Judah, Reviewed: A Box Office-Breaking Heist of Authenticity & Heart

Jedidah Judah is a woman who has long since come to terms with her reality. She is jerked from sleep by a memory of the moment she is disowned by her father, but afterwards goes about her morning with insouciance and ease even as the flashback continues to ring. She is the single mother to five very different sons from different men of different Nigerian ethnic groups, all crammed in a small home. “What will be will be,” she often says. She weeps in frustration when one of them is nearly burned alive for stealing, but later speaks the mantra while dancing and sipping alcohol. She says it again to the chagrin of her mother when a kidney disease continues to advance and ravage her face.

Her five sons are not as pliant. Emeka, the oldest, is a sales rep at a furniture store in a shopping mall. Adamu, the second, works as a security guard in the same mall. Pere, a pickpocket, and Shina, a hoodlum, are the third and the fourth, respectively. The youngest, Ejiro, is a painter who is mostly preoccupied with his girlfriend. Their dynamic is mostly fraught, with Emeka and Adamu as the responsible breadwinners, their reprimand often directed at troublemakers Pere and Shina.

As their mother’s chronic kidney disease requires a wildly expensive treatment, the brothers put aside their differences and band together. When they learn from Emeka that the furniture store is a front for a money-laundering business, headed by the owner Mr. Chigozie, they hatch a desperate plan to steal the stacks of dollars sewn into the couches.

In another signature end-of-the-year blockbuster, after 2022’s Battle on Buka Street, Funke Akindele, as director here, limns simple Nigerian lives with care. It is a bittersweet story of a struggling family. With subtle social commentary in Collins Okoh’s sure-footed screenplay, the film is an exploration of a group of diverse yet singular people, the cost of perseverance, and the unifying power of love. While it is buoyed by consistent storytelling, the ensemble cast enlivens it just as well.

Akindele once again asserts undeniable dramatic skill as Jedidah Judah: generous, expressive, and fiercely protective of her boys, sometimes to a fault. However, the story quickly focuses on her sons at the expense of a potentially poignant arc about her acquiescence to life’s whims: does she still shrug and accept the hand she is dealt when there is a devastating turn of events toward the film’s end? Sadly, we never know.

If she is the heart, the actors who play her sons hold the film in place with glowing performances. Jide Kene Achufusi is given a chance to showcase his range in the eldest Judah son, Emeka, the picture of naïve optimism, noble and grim. Whether he is asserting the character’s dominance amongst his brothers, or subject to the derision of his bosses, smile dimmed in humiliation, Achufusi renders Emeka with nuance.

Uzee Usman’s Adamu is milder, the calm in a raucous home. While he does not have the luxury of a showier role like the rest of his castmates, he holds his own as the voice of reason. It’s a pity that a storyline about his unknown Northern ties is swiftly dismissed. Timini Egbuson has become one of the most notable faces in Nollywood, and this time, refreshingly, he trades in swagger for a more rugged edge playing the layered, cruising thief Pere. Tobi Makinde somehow achieves a delightful agbero in a vulnerable performance; his Shina is fun to watch, simple-minded yet wholesomely devoted to his mother. Olumide Oworu’s role as the youngest, Ejiro, plays a bit overblown and one-note, albeit endearing, and his romance with Genoveva Umeh’s Testimony teeters between a running gag and the film’s freshest breath of air.

Nse Ikpe Etim is the sneering furniture store manager Collette, and true to her skill, she fills out the role exquisitely, even as her character falls to an incongruous backstory. Uzoh Arukwe appears in yet another iteration of the Igbo crime boss as Mr. Chigozie, complete with the accent, but his spin on the businessman moonlighting as a vicious money launderer stands out. Unlike most villainous depictions, he leans into humour, his underlying ruthlessness made all the more compelling by Arukwe’s sauntering gait, eccentric outfits, and quips, although the strength of his performance lies in the character’s familiar yet startling lack of compassion.

The real villain, however, is the circumstance that befalls the Judah family, and it is what makes the film fit so snugly in our present social context. Some aspects particularly echo reality — merciless healthcare costs, the desperation that follows the hardships and often-insurmountable odds experienced by working-class families, the very resilient make of the Nigerian spirit. A Tribe Called Judah’s true backdrop is an unforgiving Nigeria, but it showcases the lengths its people will go to remain unbowed.

Barney Emordi’s visuals are crisp, shot in dim but clear hues that complement the painstaking set designs — the Judah house feels lived-in and is framed nicely by the small community — and local character. The stunts are some of the most stellar in a Nollywood film, choreographed to suit the thrilling sequence of the burglary. As engaging is the score by Tolu Obanro.

But some parts of A Tribe Called Judah bog it down. While it does not feel so contrived here, the near-trope of criminal undertakings rears once again. Valentine Chukwuma’s editing falls short at times, with scenes that abruptly flit to the next and a noticeably recurrent but unilluminating shot of the front of the mall. Although gutting, a death does not feel tonally earned, or justified. The humour tends to eclipse the emotion in some scenes, and the plot is sometimes strongarmed into convenience. Still, these are forgivable.

With smooth, natural dialogue, courtesy of Collins Okoh and Akinlabi Ishola’s script, and capable performances, A Tribe Called Judah is a beacon of thoughtful storytelling and heart in an industry that tends to prize neither. It is thoroughly enjoyable, and, as importantly, its ending note of triumph is much needed in these bleak times.

This is another testament to Funke Akindele’s keen producer’s eye for stories that matter. With three successive films, she has broken and set the record for the highest grossing Nigerian film of all time: 2020’s Omo Ghetto: The Saga, also co-written by Collins Okoh, made N636 million, 2022’s Battle on Buka Street made N668 million, and A Tribe Called Judah became the first to cross the N1 billion threshold, and in less than three weeks. It is all proof that Nigerians want good stories that reflect their actual lives. ♦

Edited by Otosirieze.

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With subtle social commentary in Collins Okoh’s sure-footed screenplay, the film is an exploration of a group of diverse yet singular people, the cost of perseverance, and the unifying power of love.

Paula Willie-Okafor, Staff Writer at Open Country Mag

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