“A Tribe Called Judah”: Same Jokes, Only Funnier

Can a crime be justified if it is done to save a loved one’s life, especially when the victim is a bonafide ass-wipe? What happens when a poor, dysfunctional family is compelled to grapple with a terminal, expensive illness? Would it be a rallying force, or a catalyst for their disintegration? These posers undergird A Tribe Called Judah, a comedy co-directed by Funke Akindele and Adeoluwa Owu (Adire).

Jedidah, played by a weary-looking Akindele, helms the dysfunctional Judah family. They are dysfunctional not only because Jedidah’s five grown-up sons each have a different father, all deadbeat, but also because their foibles put their mother on edge. One’s kleptomania (played by Timini Egbuson) almost gets him mobbed but for his mother’s timely intercession; another, played by Tobi Makinde, with Lil Wayne face tats, is a slang-addled hoodlum.

Sunday School regulars will recognize the Book of Genesis reference. The Biblical Judah also has five sons, and the first-borns, both in the scripture and in this film, suffer the same end. There is also a nominative parallel: one of Judah’s sons is named Perez, and one of Jedidah’s is Pere. Coincidence? Or perhaps a piece of intentional screenplay by Collins Okoh? Okoh also wrote Omo Ghetto: The Saga – a rumbuctious comedy Akindele co-directed with Abdulrasheed Bello – and his inclusion here makes for some clichés: some of the last scenes in both films feature a stealthy journey across a river. But Okoh also gives this film the comic stylings that made the 2020 comedy a blockbuster. Only this time, made wiser by time and experience, both director and writer deliver a film that is genuinely humorous, largely avoiding both the sins of cringe and excess that sometimes undermined the other film. 

When Jedidah’s kidney suddenly gives out, her sons must negotiate both their poverty and rivalry in order to raise money for the transplant necessary to save their mother’s life. I have used the word ‘rivalry’ liberally, because, while the film would have you think otherwise, there isn’t really one. Punches sometimes fly among the brothers, and one of them avows his dislike of the eldest (played by Jide Kene Achufusi). But as it is not explained, we can only conjecture the origins of the animus which feels neither visceral nor long-standing.

Having exhausted all legal means, the brothers settle for burgling a furniture shop, convinced it is secretly stashed with cash. They expect an easy break-and-enter caper, but things go very bad. 

Akindele has retreated to her closet, picked out her comic stylebook and dusted it for this outing. Her old gags make a generous comeback, in the way, for example, that we are invited to laugh at the speech patterns of the crime boss (played by Uzor Arukwe) whose shop the brothers rob. He speaks a caricature of Igbo-inflected English, mangling consonants as easily as he does his enemies. Your mind goes to Jenifa, the English-deficient protagonist in the popular franchise that established Akindele’s comedic credentials. 

The subject of family dysfunction is mined for comic ore. It provided comedic fodder for Omo Ghetto, but particularly for Battle on Buka Street (2022), which Akindele co-directed with Makinde. They feature families at war with themselves, and Akindele’s diagnosis, in both films but also in this one, is that such dysfunction results from the lack of a strong paternal presence. Pere wouldn’t be so light-fingered if he had been raised with fatherly discipline, the film implies. It is a problematic thesis, and it is also as much psychological profile as the brothers get.

Yet, the film is not significantly undercut by its familiar tropes, or its thin-bodied characterization, or its lack of repartee. As a physical comedy showcase, it excels because the actors put in a good shift, their comic timing elevating the familiar material to comedic monuments. It is just like in battle rap: It is not what you say, but how you say it. 

The stakes here are especially grave. The premise of a dying mother surely has more gravitas than the romantic fraud on which Omo Ghetto, for instance, is premised. This gravitas, however, is not put to great use. Chaotic episodes of gun fu overwhelm the final act, pushing Jedidah’s battered kidney and the film’s moral conundrum into rear view. The brothers, too busy fleeing from mortal threats, have no chance to contemplate the consequences of their actions, nor do they come by new insights about each other or their mother or their own selves. The effect is a film that promises a double bill of comedy and drama but only skids over the second half of the contract. 

Yet it is generally a well-made film, and no wonder, despite an economic recession, people flocked to theaters in the thousands to see it. Weeks ago, it scored a billion naira at the box office, becoming not only the first Nigerian film to do so, but also the highest-grossing Nigerian film ever. The Judahs may not have learned anything about themselves, but filmmakers looking to make box office films must have surely learned this: Ms. Akindele holds the secrets.

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