Out Of Africa: How Funke Akindele Made The Highest-Grossing Nigerian Film Of All Time

One of Nollywood’s most successful filmmakers in recent years deploys an effective combination of brand goodwill, aggressive marketing and a fairly cohesive screenplay to break national box office records.

An Ambitious Plot

When she gets pregnant out of wedlock, Jedidah Judah is disowned by her conservative parents, forced to drop out of school, and flung into the streets. Her attempts at finding love (or companionship, at least) only result in serial misadventures, and she ends up being a mother to five sons, each by men in different ethnic groups.

Despondency sets the tone for this crime dramedy set in a fictional town that passes for downtown Lagos. Co-directed by Funke Akindele (Omo Ghetto, Battle on Buka Street) and Adeoluwa Owu (The Griot), the film’s cast includes Jide Kene Achufusi (Brotherhood), Timini Egbuson (Superstar, Breaded Life), Uzor Arukwe (Prophetess, Sugar Rush), Uzee Usman (Fantastic Numbers), Olumide Oworu (The Black Book), Genoveva Umeh (Blood Sisters, Breath of Life), Nse Ikpe Etim (Shanty Town, Mr & Mrs) and Tobi Makinde (Battle on Buka Street).

Jedidah commands respect in her squalid community as a philanthropic entrepreneur, and dotes on her five sons amid their frailties: Emeka is a sales rep weary from the financial responsibilities of being a first-born son, Adamu can only find a security gig, Pere has keen eyes for other people’s property, Shina is a punch-drunk street urchin, and Ejiro (the last son) is an artsy but immature man caught up in young romance.

The Judahs have their stormy existence further upended when Jedidah’s kidneys cave in to alcoholism (an addiction which sprung from her depression), and the boys find themselves at a crossroads. Unable to raise funds for their mother’s urgent kidney transplant, these brothers, not always seeing eye to eye, decide to pull off a high-stakes burglary.

A Refreshing Screenplay, At Least By Nollywood’s Standards

Systemic misogyny, familial bonds, toxic work culture, love, family dysfunction and sacrifice are the overarching themes in this movie which is doused in typical Akindele-esque humour, but succeeds in steering clear of the path to ridiculousness: there is way less slapstick and none of the garishness of her previous features. With Barnabas Emordi’s elegant cinematography and a production design that manages to get the basics right, A Tribe Called Judah makes for a visual experience that is, at least three-quarters of the time, aesthetically pleasing.

Compared to her previous efforts as lead actor, Akindele hands in a more measured performance, and while her diction is still flavoured by “Jenifa-speak” (leaning into the titular semi-literate character from her uber-successful TV franchise), she avoids the vociferousness that sometimes dilutes the quality of her work: her previous effort, Battle on Buka Street, was accused of having “several scenes and a few subplots that felt redundant.

Egbuson flourishes in his role as the thieving but adorable Pere, while Arukwe and Ikpe-Etim bounce off each other well enough to provide comic value and at the same time set up a catalyst for the moral greyness on which the film is anchored. The standout performer, however, is Makinde, who immerses himself in the role of the loyal albeit troubled Shina, eliciting laughter with every one-liner as seen in his exchanges with members of his gang. Oworu and Umeh do not necessarily pull off the most convincing ghetto couple – they hardly pass for poor young adults – but their dynamic is a tad lovely to watch; there is a childlike cuteness to it.

Credit should go to Collins Okoh and Akinlabi Ishola, whose joint effort created the movie’s screenplay. Their ability to work out adequately fleshed-out backstories for some of the lead characters, without incessant reliance on flashbacks, makes a huge difference. The infusion of crisp dialogue and great comedic timing helps sustain high levels of hilarity for long stretches of the movie’s 134-minute runtime.

Falling Short In The Tiny Details

But the humour in this film is also its undoing. There is such a thing as laughing too much, especially when a film is still expected to harbour certain dramatic elements. American film critic Rafael Abreu, in his essay “Dramedy Explained – A Study of the Comedy Drama Genre” writes that “the ratio between drama and comedy can vary, but most of the time there is an equal measure of both, with neither side dominating.” 

Abreu adds that “establishing the topic of your comedy-drama is important, but you need to make sure your characters can carry that weight.”

The transition from funny to poignant is botched more than once, and while enough motivation is established to keep rooting for the characters, the actors fail to inject the volume of pathos required to draw out empathy from the audience when it’s due: surely, the tragic death of a loved one should evoke more emotive reactions than what is on display. A better score to back up the dramatic sequences could have helped to halve the emotional deficit, but this dramedy falls short in this regard.

A Tribe Called Judah is also guilty on other counts, as far as cinematic sins go. The film’s second act, where the bulk of the conflict lies, is fraught with sequences that fail to pass the tests for plausibility: adrenaline is not enough for a band of amateur thieves to easily fend off professional robbers in fisticuffs and a gunfight, especially in a sequence that attempts to borrow elements from Hollywood heist flicks like Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven and Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. The visual effects team looks to have dropped the ball in a few scenes, and the hasty execution of the denouement almost ruins what is an otherwise delightful viewing: the third act has been the bane of many a Nigerian blockbuster, but this one just manages to limp above the finish line to a satisfactory climax.

Michael Aromolaran, editor at The Culture Custodian, acknowledges that A Tribe Called Judah, in aiming to provide a riveting narrative, falters in a few respects.

 “It succeeds as a comedy, even as an action flick. But how does it perform as a family drama? Not so well, he writes. “To raise money, the siblings rob a rumoured criminal’s store. But the robbery goes wrong – loads of gun-fu the brothers hadn’t anticipated – and the boys learn that actions, even well-intentioned ones, have consequences. But do they come by new emotional knowledge about each other, about themselves, about their mother? Not that we see.”

Box Office Figures and Marketing Genius

However, Michael and I both agree that the movie is an entertaining spectacle that thrives on a winning recipe, and with more right than wrong steps, it culminates in a crowd-pleasing effort, as box office numbers have shown: this month, it became the first Nollywood film to make 1 billion naira at the box office, making it the highest-grossing Nigerian film ever. It is also the first Nollywood movie to have consecutive weekly admissions of over 100,000.

 In his words, “Akindele can be proud of herself. She’s directed a film that’s well-made generally, while providing a formula for box office success of the billion-naira variety: messy family drama, mixed with genuine humour and some flying bullets. A Tribe Called Judah is genuinely funny, and as far as narratives go, it is almost blameless.”

It is important to consider Akindele’s box office triumph in context. The average weekly cinema attendance for Nollywood films in 2023 was recorded at 19,733, compared to 35,590 in 2020 and 30,895 in 2021. Also, there have been marginal increments in the average price of cinema tickets: across screeners in Nigeria’s city centres, tickets go for an average of N7,000, compared to N3,700 in 2020, according to an industry report curated by film publication IN Nollywood. This is not unconnected to the hyperinflation that has plagued the Nigerian economy. To put things in perspective, Omo Ghetto: The Saga (2020) grossed over N636 million at the box office, but if it had been released in December 2023, it would have grossed at least N1.6 billion judging from the number of admissions it earned (449,901). The hike in prices has forced audiences to rethink their purchasing decisions and move farther from ticketing booths, with the exception of outliers like Akindele’s last three releases.

Anita Eboigbe, media specialist and co-founder of IN Nollywood, argues that despite these variables, A Tribe Called Judah is still a resounding box office success, as it ticked all the right boxes, appealing to a wide demographic and leveraging on an effective marketing campaign.

She (Akindele) carried her film on her head, says Eboigbe. In executing her social media strategy for this film she knew the different target markets, and how best to sell to them. You could see an intentionality in her campaign. Also, this is one of the best stories that she has churned out in a long time, so it was a bonus: people usually go to see her films, so the fact that she crafted a better screenplay made it much easier to recommend this one. Again, when placed side-by-side with the other Nollywood films screening in December, picking hers was a no-brainer.”

A Tribe Called Judah had a lengthy cinematic run in Nigeria, and select venues in the United Kingdom. It also screened at 13 regions in nine African countries: Bessengue and Yaounde in Cameroon, Godope and Mide in Togo, Idrissa Quedraogo and Yennega in Burkina Faso; Poto Poto in Congo, Rebero in Rwanda, Teranga in Senegal; Tombolia in Guinea, Cotonou in Benin Republic and Mandijozangue in Gabon. It will be available on a streaming service later in the year.


Latest articles

Related articles