BY NOAH TSIKA
Written as white, the protagonist of Nash Edgerton’s newly released Gringo was transformed into a Yoruba-speaking Nigerian expatriate at the urging of actor David Oyelowo, who won the part. Yet to what extent did this racial shift signal a serious investment in Nigerianness, rather than a mere surface change enabled by the Oyelowo who here delivers English-language dialogue with a comically thick accent? In truth, Oyelowo is playing an all too familiar stereotype—the Nigerian as naïf, buffeted about by duplicitous Americans and altogether unprepared for the series of mishaps that mark his story. (“What is a ‘rim job’?” he asks at one point, much to the chagrin of the jaded Americans who surround him.) Oyelowo’s Harold is even unaware of his wife’s infidelity—a fact that she stresses as she cruelly bids farewell to him via Skype, invoking “The Invisible Gorilla,” the famous experiment designed to test selective attention. Harold repeatedly references “the American dream,” and his delusions are fed by his Big Pharma boss, Richard (Joel Edgerton), who tells him, “Your life is gonna look like a rap video!”
Gringo is thus the story of Harold’s belated maturation—a dark comedy that, in allowing the character to triumph against seemingly impossible odds, cannot help but recall the Nollywood classic Osuofia in London (directed by Kingsley Ogoro and released in 2003).
Like Osuofia, Harold is habitually taken advantage of while abroad. But unlike the brash, Igbo Osuofia, Harold, with his Yoruba-inflected entreaties to God, is shy and deferential—so sweet that the only character with whom he truly connects is a spaced-out flower child played by Amanda Seyfried, who at first mistakes his accent for a Jamaican one, and later admits that 419 fraud is the only thing that she associates with Nigeria. “Once, I got an email from a Nigerian prince asking me if I could help him out by sending him some money,” she says. Harold doesn’t do much to correct her impression of his countrymen, preferring to simply rue his own ingenuousness. Summarizing “the story of my time in America,” he bitterly notes that “playing by the rules”—as he has always done—gets one nowhere. His new cynicism permits him to outmaneuver those seeking to shape his destiny—including Richard’s brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley), a pretentious ex-mercenary who at one point proclaims, “You’ve got an underdog thing about you, Harold. Reminds me of the Haitians.”
Born to Nigerian parents in England, David Oyelowo is here employing an accent familiar from those who raised him—from his father especially, a man who is said to have exerted a pronounced influence on Oyelowo’s conception of Harold. It is clearly not Oyelowo’s own accent, however, and while the actor fares far better than, say, Will Smith in 2015’s Concussion (in which Smith plays the Nigerian-born physician Bennet Omalu with a sort of all-purpose “African” accent that is nothing short of embarrassing), his vocal acrobatics cannot possibly compete with those of the Nollywood legends Nkem Owoh, John Okafor, and Pete Edochie. (At one point in Gringo, Harold sings along to Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” as he drives through Chicago snow.)
Gringo alludes to a number of national-cultural stereotypes, at one point showing a newspaper headline that reads, “Kidnapping: Mexico’s Plague.” Ultimately, however, the film does little to trouble the stereotypes on which it relies, and one is left to wonder what a Nigerian actor—a Nollywood star, say—might have done with the role of Harold.