Blossom Chukwujekwu stars in the lead role as Eric, aka “the Chairman,” the film’s unassuming criminal mastermind. There’s something eerie, in a good way, about how The Trade highlights the vulnerability of the people who turn out to be his victims…
By Vivian Nneka Nwajiaku
After Brotherhood, and with Jade Osiberu’s Amazon streaming deal, the expectation was that it would be a while before the Isoken director’s next big screen outing. And yet, only a few months after, Osiberu returned with The Trade, a remarkable, yet barely advertised feature inspired by the true story of a notorious kidnapper who reigned supreme for about a decade in Southern Nigeria, and the police officers desperate to catch him.
When I got the chance to see The Trade during its theatrical run, I was so taken by its attentiveness and its commitment to its theme that it felt almost flawless on first watch. On second watch, with its arrival on Prime Video to very little fanfare, there’s more room for closer inspection. And while there are a few hiccups here and there — like the technical challenges with sound and the abandonment of a couple of subplots — The Trade is still a very good movie. I might even be so bold as to call it the best thing Nollywood has offered its local audience in this first quarter of 2023. Now, it might not have the most interesting title, and it might share that uninteresting title with a foreign film and a foreign series with somewhat similar premises, but Osiberu’s film (The Trade) is an intriguing and thrilling take on organised kidnapping in Nigeria. And without sensationalism or exaggeration (except for the accents, but we’ll come back to that).
Written and directed by Osiberu, The Trade presents kidnapping as a business, very much as it has become in Nigerian society. In fact, the Igbo soundtrack that accompanies the film’s title card (“Bless the work of my hands” is the English translation) underscores the film’s portrayal of the subject matter, where kidnapping is not just a crime but an actual handwork, almost an art. Osiberu takes time to establish how the business is operated, how the kidnaps are orchestrated, and how the proceeds are laundered. In the process, it exposes the system that allows this crime to thrive as a trade, from bankers with too much access to customer’ financial and personal information, to underfunded law enforcement and corrupt police officers.
Blossom Chukwujekwu stars in the lead role as Eric, aka “the Chairman,” The Trade’s unassuming criminal mastermind. There’s something eerie, in a good way, about how The Trade highlights the vulnerability of the people who turn out to be his victims, and even the viewers’ own vulnerability in real life. Osiberu’s screenplay and direction situate Eric in the most mundane positions. He’s the man who’s eating banana by the roadside as you pick your child up from school. He’s the church member whose daughter sings in the choir. He’s in the car you pass by on your morning jogs. He’s dangerous, and he’s near you. But you have no way of knowing. Like him, Eric’s gang is comprised of mostly unassuming people, played by a cast that includes Gideon Okeke, Chimezie Imo, Kelechi Udegbe, Chiwetalu Agu, Chukwuemeka Kelvin, and Stan Nze.
An intelligent and calculative man, Eric handles his illicit profession with the utmost discretion. The very mention of his name sends shivers down the spines of other kidnappers. But very few know what he looks like. And even those who have seen him don’t know his real name or anything tangible about him. Chukwujekwu, whose last truly interesting role was a similarly dual-faced character in Okechukwu Oku’s Black Rose in 2018, puts in a particularly strong shift, opting for a generally non-threatening, albeit commanding portrayal of Eric. He’s the ordinary man you think nothing of because he looks more like “Mr Ibu” than a kidnapper and potential murderer. And unless you see his home (and his Mercedes G Wagon), which very few people get to see, you can never guess how wealthy he is.
If it wasn’t drawn from a true story, it might be difficult to accept the extremity of Eric’s elusiveness as a realistic plot point and easy to regard it as just another crime trope. But that’s the elusive man that a team of police officers have, in The Trade, been after for years without even the tiniest lead to rely on. This is a man who has a family with his oft-forgotten wife, Chidinma (Waje Iruobe), who calls him Chukwudi; a secret second family with his mistress, Nneka (Nengi Adoki), where he’s known as Eric; a father he hasn’t seen in almost nineteen years; and a sister (Uru Eke) who merely calls him “brother” and complains that their children have only ever met at a hotel. Yet, nobody has a picture of him, not his colleagues, not the families he juggles, and certainly not the police task force trying to catch him.
On their part, the police are coming to terms with the fact that they are chasing a ghost. Ali Nuhu plays DCP Abubakar “Bukar,” the head of the Intelligence Response Team that’s haunting down Eric. He’s assisted by the impatient Charles (Shawn Faqua), initially excited to learn from Bukar whom he calls his biggest inspiration on the force. There’s also Amina (Lami George), the level-headed officer who more or less guides Charles through the new job. After interviewing Eric’s latest victim (Denola Grey) and as many other families of victims as they can lay their hands on, they find themselves back to square one, with no clue who Eric is. But everything changes when the Chairman’s banker (Greg Ojefua) introduces him to Doris (Rita Dominic), the wealthy CEO of a major transport company and the woman whose kidnap would push down the first tile in Eric’s domino stack. What follows is a game of “catch me if you can” in a stretched-out third act as Eric — whose motivation as a man who would do anything to provide for and protect his family has been painstakingly established — frantically works to get away.
The Trade is an ambitious crime thriller packed with action sequences and thriller tropes. It shines in the care with which it handles the markers of its genre, especially in how well Osiberu incorporates her chosen tropes so naturally, but also in how her screenplay (and direction) utilises humour to ease tension where needed. There’s more praise to be sung for its editing, camerawork and score. Plus, the cast delivers solid performances, marred only by the exaggerated and inconsistent Igbo accents that many of its actors adopt. Considering how many characters had that head-scratching accent, it’s safe to assume that it was a directorial decision likely aimed at adding an extra layer of authenticity to the cast. But the actors lay it on too thick, so that it ends up feeling forced and parodic. Only Nze and Okeke are able to hold themselves back from overdoing. Chukwujekwu’s performance is weakened by the accent. Adoki’s ordinarily good acting comes off as cringe because of the accent. And an extra who has only one scene in The Trade (as a hairdresser) overdoses on the accent, too. The effect is that the potency of several actions and parts of the dialogue get lost, and the intensity of the film (The Trade) gets watered down.
Regardless, The Trade is a film you’ll likely come out of feeling considerably satisfied. We still have to wait and see how her future films, especially her Amazon Prime slate, turn out. But at this stage, Osiberu is clearly outdoing many of her peers.
(The Trade is streaming on Prime Video here.)
Vivian Nneka Nwajiaku, a film critic, writer and lawyer, currently writes from Lagos. Connect with her on Twitter @Nneka_Viv and Instagram @_vivian.nneka.