We have a special program to thank for two excellent indie films in the past two years – Lucky Grandma, by Asian-American filmmakers Sasie Sealy and Angela Cheng, and Nigerian Prince, Nigerian-American filmmaker Faraday Okoro. Both films were winners of AT&T Presents: Untold Stories, which is an alliance between AT&T and the Tribeca Film Institute. Now in its third year, the program awards a $1 million cash prize, mentorship and distribution to under-represented filmmakers with a story to tell. Okoro and Nigerian Prince was the first winner, in 2017, and the result debuted at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. I was impressed by the film and included it in my “TFF2018: What to Watch” article but unfortunately never got around to writing a full review of it, which I will try to remedy now.
Lucky Grandma and its two, young filmmakers was the second winner, and the film debuted at TFF2019. I adored that unusual comedy and my research into it is what brought the Untold Stories program to my attention. It’s easy (and valid) to bemoan corporate greed and domination, but sometimes they do something worthwhile, and I believe we should acknowledge the good as well as the bad. So, Helen is Highly Grateful to AT&T for Lucky Grandma and Nigerian Prince, and Helen Highly Recommends both films. I will provide a slightly different perspective at the end of this essay.
Would I accept money from AT&T to make my movie? I probably would. Would I let AT&T put their float in my Pride Parade? I probably wouldn’t.
First impression: What a delight! And what a relief from all the heavy, depressing documentaries that tend to dominate Tribeca Film Festival. I found myself laughing out loud for the first time in weeks – weeks of watching dozens of movies. To be accurate, there are actually quite a few comedies at TFF, and I typically don’t seek them out because my biased expectation is that they try awfully hard to be funny and usually annoy me.
Why did I go see Lucky Grandma? I was drawn in by the poster – the weathered, tired face of an elderly Chinese woman, staring straight at the camera with a defiant scowl as she smokes a cigarette. It’s not often that you see a feature-film comedy with a woman as the lead character, much less an elderly woman, much less a Chinese woman, much less a grumpy, cigarette-smoking woman. And comedies from foreign countries, made outside the Hollywood system, tend to be more subtle, quirkier, or otherwise more appealing to me. My instincts were right; this film is fresh, funny, and fierce.
Veteran actress Tsai Chin (Casino Royale, The Joy Luck Club), delivers a bitingly honest, moody and hilarious performance as an ornery, 80-year-old, chain-smoking grandma living in New York’s Chinatown. Recently widowed and angry at being left with little money to live on, despite working dutifully alongside her husband for many years, she nonetheless insists on maintaining her independence, which worries her modern, Chinese-American family. When a local fortune-teller predicts an auspicious day in her near future, Grandma heads straight to the bank, withdraws all her money, then takes a bus trip to the nearest casino, where she goes “all in,” loses her life’s savings and lands herself on the wrong side of luck, albeit with a huge bag of cash that belonged to a dead man and literally fell into her lap.
She soon becomes entrenched in the middle of a Chinatown gang war. Refusing to relinquish her “lucky” gains, Grandma employs the services of a bodyguard from a rival gang – out-haggling the brutes with her streetwise practicality. She turns out to be as bad-ass as any of the young thugs who chase her, all while cooking dumpling soup for her grandson and watching her soap operas on TV. It’s worth mentioning that Grandma’s toughest rival is the secret ringleader of the gang that’s chasing her, who also just happens to be a woman – young and beautiful, ruthless and smart, another commanding female role in this movie.
Does anyone ever consider calling the cops for assistance? Hell no; what happens in Chinatown stays in Chinatown. As wacky as the action sequences are, that I believe — the intensely insular nature of this community (which makes our access via this film all the more compelling). Grandma is simply the coolest curmudgeon you’ll find in any film; the fact that her exploits are wildly absurd does not put a dent in her immense authenticity and likeability.
With amazing dexterity for a first full-length film, director Sealy brings to life a dark comedy about immigrant life, the vulnerabilities of aging, and the primacy of family. Shot on location in bustling streets, a web of alleyways, casino buses and underground mahjong parlors, with a cast of richly drawn characters, including Taiwanese breakout-talent Corey Ha as the bodyguard, Lucky Grandma is a love letter to Chinatown and a tribute to tough old broads everywhere.
If Clint Eastwood were an old Chinese lady, he could maybe play Grandma in this film. But actually, he doesn’t have the emotional range. Nonetheless, I’ll go ahead and say this film is like A Fistful of Dollars meets Get Shorty meets The Joy Luck Club. It’s not easy to put together a lineage for this film – a gangland comedy with a good-bad-ugly protagonist who is also a nurturing Chinese grandma. And that’s no-doubt what made it special enough to win the Untold Stories prize at Tribeca (and exemplifies how female filmmakers do add unique value).
Lucky Grandma is currently still on the film festival circuit and has not yet had a theatrical release. I’ll try my best to keep you posted with updates.
Also a bit of a genre-bender, I initially included Nigerian Prince in my Pick List for Tribeca Film Festival 2018, without noticing that it was the first film to come out of the new AT&T Presents: Untold Stories program. In terms of choosing a category for it, I faltered; it feels like a documentary but isn’t, and I finally listed it as a foreign film, even though it really isn’t that either.
But it’s made by a Nigerian-American, Faraday Okoro, and takes place in Nigeria and was shot on location, vividly capturing a very foreign place. Nigerian Prince offers a snapshot of a world not often seen on film, introducing the reality behind the all-too-familiar junk-mail scams that target Westerners and are surprisingly persuasive pleas from a supposed member of a royal family, urgently requesting financial assistance with the false promise of a generous return of funds with profit. These scams are so prevalent (and oddly successful) that they’ve touched all of us, in one way or another, and we can’t really fathom what it is on the other side of the world that produces them and brings them into our American lives. This debut feature from writer-director Faraday Okoro gives cinematic life to characters who have previously only lurked in the shadows of the American imagination.
When troubled American teenager Eze (Antonio J. Bell) is sent away to his mother’s native Nigeria against his will, to live with his aunt Grace (Tina Mba), he quickly finds himself entangled in a dangerous web of scams and corruption, with his desperate con-artist cousin Pius as his guide. Despite his Nigerian heritage, Eze is a stranger in a strange land, where no one can be trusted. This film, built upon a framework of strong performances, seamlessly blends thrilling sequences of elaborate deception and dramatic tension with surprising moments of humor, making it much more than a fish-out-of-water tale. Newcomer Chinaza Uche is particularly brilliant as Pius, his magnetism and cunning matched only by the sadness underlying his performance.
The film itself is a remarkable feat, shot on location in Lagos and finished in just under 12 months. It’s a feature film that often feels like a documentary. The intensity feels real, and you will sincerely worry how these dramatic circumstances will end. All the exciting con jobs make this movie part crime-thriller, and the good laughs make it part comedy, buts its social conscience is what defines Nigerian Prince as an important film. This is a movie to care about and think about and talk about.
For this film, I’m gonna say it’s The Asphalt Jungle meets Midnight Express meets District 9, except a little more light-hearted – not totally tragic. I am not especially good at this game of naming theoretical film lineages, but I think these Untold Stories films are particularly difficult to pigeon-hole. This is a uniquely original film experience.
Nigerian Prince was a promising start to the Untold Stories program. It was sold to Vertical Entertainment and somewhere along the way acquired Spike Lee as an Executive Producer. It got a theatrical run in October 2018 and is now available for streaming from Amazon Prime, among others.
AT&T’s Untold Story
AT&T is to be commended for their generous support of these two films. Before I finish this article, however, I feel compelled to give fair complaint to AT&T on two counts. (Skip this section if you prefer to keep your ethical outlook simple.) First, I am being relentlessly hounded by a collection company that erroneously believes I owe money to AT&T. As many people have experienced, I am sure, AT&T internet/TV/phone service is one of many companies that – in addition to providing a valuable service – use their powerful position to employ unfair business practices and make it virtually impossible for the consumer to fight back. So even though my bank investigated my complaint and determined that I was right and AT&T was wrong in auto-withdrawing money from my checking account that was not due to them, and my bank refunded me the money, AT&T has now handed over my “case” to one of those ruthless collection agencies, and I will no-doubt pay a price in a decline of my credit rating. So, I am no fan of AT&T. But if my stolen money went to fund these two films, maybe it was worth it. These are the times we live in.
This is not my larger issue with AT&T in this article but nonetheless, it seems an ideal opportunity to include a clip from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, which always has its finger on the pulse of what is going on (or going wrong). FYI, AT&T owns HBO, which owns John Oliver, so this contradiction is somewhat relevant. Enjoy:
More importantly, right now in New York, we are hearing a dispute about its popular LGBTQ Pride Parade; some critics say it has become overrun by corporate sponsors, so they have organized an alternative Queer Liberation March for the same day. (Click here for the New York Times article.) It’s a worthy debate – the role of corporations and whether they serve to enable or restrict the advancement of minority-group agendas and their fights for rights and freedom. In its article, The New York Times explains, “The group calls the Pride March an advertising showcase for floats sponsored by major corporations…that distract from the message of Stonewall. [This is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which are widely considered to be the start of the modern gay-rights movement.]”
During Pride Month, many corporations unveil rainbow versions of their logos in a show of solidarity to the LGBTQ community, including AT&T, but their actions don’t always match the image they try to convey. According to a new report from Popular Information, AT&T donated $2.7 million to 193 aggressively anti-gay politicians from 2017 to 2018 while receiving a perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which declared them among the “Best Places to Work for LGBTQ Equality.” These politicians include Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who opposed the Violence Against Women Act because it included protections for LGBTQ people. Blackburn is also against marriage equality. Click here to see John Oliver call out his new parent company, AT&T, for supporting Steve King, a well-known “white nationalist”. Or, click here to read about AT&T giving $200,000 to politicians leading abortion-bans in six states. Thus, corporations have the power to lift people up, or to crush them, or to co-opt and commercialize their interests, and they frequently contradict themselves and do all three at once. Life is so darned complicated; the line between right and wrong zigs and zags. And the two films featured in this article – made possible by AT&T, understand that dilemma better than most.
Watch the trailer for Nigerian Prince, below:
Sealy and Cheng talk about the process of getting Lucky Grandma made, below: