The movies are becoming an increasingly vital source for stories about black life in America, but a film like “Dara Ju” is a valuable reminder that the medium is still just beginning to scratch the surface. Of course, white audiences, whom the western arts have conditioned to perceive race in largely monolithic terms, are the only ones who need reminding; the rest require only fair representation. Despite its clumsiness and its steadily increasing penchant for clichés, Anthony Onah’s debut feature has something to offer for both demographics. By respecting the specificity of a character who has seldom appeared on screen, its best moments provide a compellingly lucid testament to the idea that living in this country is a never-ending negotiation between who you are and who you might become. Some Americans have the luxury of ignoring that, of going through the motions on auto-pilot. Seyi Ogunde (Aml Ameen) is not one of those Americans.
The 24-year-old son of two Nigerian immigrants, Seyi is, by all appearances, the model child of a first-generation family. He’s the sort of young man whom Republican senators of a certain age might refer to as “articulate.” And yet, despite the fact that he’s a Harvard graduate who’s parlayed his brilliant mind into a competitive job on Wall Street, Seyi isn’t introduced to us in the context of his accomplishments. On the contrary, Onah frames him as someone trespassing in his own life, split between two separate worlds and vaguely alien to both of them.
Under the resonant first notes of Enis Rotthoff’s gorgeous and glassy score, Seyi stares in the mirror and pulls at the non-existent flab around his stomach as if trying to make sense of his skin. The only black person at his firm, he jokingly adopts a Nigerian accent to pal around with the security guard in the lobby, only to switch gears on the elevator so that he can roll with the overwhelming bro-ness of his colleagues upstairs (sample dialogue: “If you wanna get girls in the bedsheets, you gotta lay off the spreadsheets”). He never forgets that Manhattan is an island. Despite a presumably decent salary, he lives with his parents and his sister in a spartan house in Hoboken, where his father (“Goodbye Solo” star Souléymane Sy Savané) is recovering from a stroke and dreaming of a return to Africa. Sometimes, Seyi’s family dresses in traditional Nigerian garb around the house — he wears it like a costume.
And when he begins pursuing a (very) white girl named Liz Sloane (Lucy Griffiths, good in a limited role), their burgeoning relationship puts both of Seyi’s worlds into harsh perspective. Unsurprisingly, Liz brings up Obama on their first date. Seyi is critical of the former President, arguing that he should have better anticipated the racism that hobbled his administration. Interestingly, “Barry” is the only other film in recent memory that explored this territory to such a penetrating degree.
Being black is exhausting, as Jerrod Carmichael might say, and being Seyi seems doubly so (no wonder he snorts Adderall like it’s going out of style). Ameen, the latest in a long line of British or Australian actors who have stepped into African-American roles, does a phenomenal job of navigating between pride and prejudice. Forthright and dignified, Seyi never really hides his feelings — he doesn’t try to be a chameleon, he wants to synthesize the disparate parts of his identity rather than alternate between them. No matter how charmingly he flirts with Liz, or how convincingly he suffers through his colleagues’ dumbass banter, the extra effort it takes to Seyi to be himself is always palpable. Liz isn’t particularly interesting (imagine Marnie from “Girls” minus the neuroses), and many of the scenes she shares with Seyi are too schematic to feel real, but Ameen burdens his character with so much baggage that even the most forgettable dialogue is endowed with a certain weight.
READ MORE: 6 Things We Learned About Noah Hawley, ‘Fargo,’ and ‘Legion’ at SXSWIn fact, Ameen inhabits Seyi with such dimension that “Dara Ju” only falters when it tries to overcompensate, which it does far too often. Severely undercooking the fraught dynamic between Seyi and his father (ditto that between his father and the rest of the family), Onah instead chooses to push his protagonist towards the trappings of a limp financial thriller, complete with some poorly dramatized insider trading and all of the paranoia that comes with it. Seyi doesn’t cheat to get ahead, he cheats to stay even, but the rest of the film does such a fine job of illustrating his struggle that the criminal stuff feels distracting at best, and histrionic at worst. The character deserves better than his ham-fisted slide into drug dependency, or to hit bottom by crying in the shower. One particularly unfortunate moment, in which Seyi frightens a white woman outside of a bodega, is so mishandled that it trivializes the unavoidable urgency of his identity crisis.
The story ultimately frays apart by tugging at its flimsiest threads, but Onah hits on too many things with too much force for his debut to be dismissed as a result. “Dara Ju” is Yoruba for “better,” and — when it’s focused — this film that borrows the term for its title is a clear-eyed look at what it can mean, and just how much can be lost in translation for those who are trying to define it for themselves.
“Dara Ju” premiered in the Narrative Feature Competition at SXSW 2017. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.