There is a not quite explained comic charm behind the Nigerian accent. ‘Gringo’, a dark comedy directed by Nash Edgerton, is the latest film to support that hypothesis. Just before this, Black Panther gave us Winston Duke’s M’Baku, who has emerged as an unlikely breakout star and fan favourite. Just like you go for a European accent to enforce some level of iniquitous ill intent – on a scale from British to Russian, the Nigerian accent; unreserved, vivacious, and tailor-made for pantomime sensibilities always seems like a sure bet to keep your average low-hanging fruit comedy afloat, even if barely in the case of ‘Gringo’.
A little Ghanaian/Nigerian film history: in the mid-2000s, Nigeria’s film industry pumped out its brand of exploitation comedies with rabid intensity, at least into Ghana, to wild success; asserting itself over the local industry and moulding popular culture. They always had rubbish plots with Three Stooges era inspired humour but even the snobs amongst us would have been gasping for air through tears of laughter. That was almost a lifetime ago and Nigeria seems to have moved on to more sophisticated brands of comedy whilst some Ghanaian filmmakers think they have caught up in a sprint that ended over a decade ago.
The point of this digression? The magic of the Nigerian accent still alive and strong, affording its wielder the ability to alter nonsense dialogue and an uneven plot into something more enjoyable than it deserved to be. David Oyelowo has the magic wand here swooshing and swishing his way as the miserable Harold Soyinka, a manager at a Pharmaceutical company based in Chicago. He holds this position because of a different kind of magic – nepotism. The co-president of the company, Richard (Joel Edgerton), is supposed to be Harold’s long-time friend and got him this job. But Richard is basically a smug narcissistic hyena as we’ll come to learn.
Seeds for the plot are sown when Harold’s accountant, whilst voicing concern with Harold’s credit and his wife’s (Thandie Newton) decadence, hints that his client’s jobs situation may not be stable for much longer. Harold proceeds to confront Richard with these fears and is met with assurances wrapped in a so-dumb-its-funny analogy having to do with gorillas, bananas and carrots. It turns out the other president of the company, Elaine (Charlise Theron), is a hyena too, although of a more snide and ruthless breed and probably the poster girl sleeping-your-way-to-the-top.
In the midst of his job security concerns, Harold is sent to Mexico to a factory he supervises periodically. That plant makes marijuana in a pill form and we soon learn our two hyena presidents have been in bed with a Mexican drug cartel for a while. But they now want to sever ties with the cartel and its leader, the Black Panther, to keep their books clean for a potential merger (so much for the banana-carrot assurances). Of course, this won’t end well, as the plant manager, Sanchez (Hernán Mendoza) points out. You just don’t walk out on a deal with the cartel. Richard and Elaine couldn’t be bothered as Sanchez is to be the sorry messenger bearing bad news to the cartel boss.
Our time with the Black Panther serves the film’s funniest moments. He has this hilarious fascination with the Beatles and their ’67 album Sgt. Pepper. Those without the appearance of matching enthusiasm for the Beatles end up having more in common with George and John than Ringo and Paul. Sanchez is on the right side of the Black Panther’s Beatlemania. The more pressing matters, having to do with the drug supply, don’t end too well. It is here that Harold is placed firmly in the crosshairs as he is the only one with biometric access to the vault that contains the formula for the marijuana pill.
There is a lot going on plot-wise, even for the setup alone. And yes, it’s stuffed like a pinata, only filled with vitamin c pills instead of chocolates. The long and short of it is that Harold finally sees the light, via another funny gorilla analogy, and tries to take control of his sorry life. He has been the butt of a lot of deceit but not anymore. He’s going to try and get his own back from his hyena bosses and this lands him in a ton of shootouts, kidnapping attempts and car crashes. Harold feels like there is no life for him back in the US, which is ridiculous. It’s not like he was a fugitive or something. But Harold’s melancholy is tinged with a Nigerian accent so I just went with it, just like I went with his rash and stupid choices. Hearing a terrified Nigerian squealing as bullets fly over his head remains a novelty that requires some cherishing.
When Harold is off screen, ‘Gringo’ gets a little too tedious. There is a chaff subplot involving characters played by Harry Treadaway and Amanda Seyfried. Sharlto Copley also shows up when maybe what the film needed was a scene with the Black Panther and Harold singing Hey Jude. Then there are a number of clichés and predictable twists, ranging from a day of the dead-ish random carnival one night (unless of course carnivals happen in Mexico City with relative frequency) to the DEA “reveal” we see coming a mile away. In our director’s mind, Mexico is basically drugs, kidnappings, cartels and people saying “gringo” all the time. The goal was to build the film on this flimsy foundation.
Misgivings aside, I liked the energy of ‘Gringo’ for the most part. It never felt unsure of itself and all the characters looked to be enjoying themselves. After going Ugandan and Batswana, Oyelowo returns home to Nigeria and he is loving it. Theron too. She gets to be shamelessly sleazy and doesn’t get enough credit for her comedy chops. ‘Gringo’ would have played better by being a much more tighter and acting as a Horrible Bosses spin-off. Now outside the laughs, it will be the answer to a trivia question: For three points, how many African accents has David Oyelowo showcased in his films?