Thankfully, there has been a rise in the number of movies and TV shows over the years that show black people as complex, three-dimensional humans. These characters represent an actual range of narratives and a shift in the stories that are now considered worth telling.
So today, we will be focusing on black characters of Nigerian descent that were written and acted with grace and wit. From the heroic to the villainous, these are the best Nigerian characters — in Hollywood movies and TV shows — of the 21st century. We do wish there were more women though.
Okwe in Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Stephen Frears’s Oscar-nominated social thriller, Dirty Pretty Things, is an intelligent and moving film about the horrific exploitation of illegal immigrants in the UK — from working shitty jobs to trading organs for citizenship.
The noble and conflicted Okwe (played to perfection by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the film’s beating heart. A doctor in Nigeria before fleeing to London due to a political struggle; Okwe becomes an illegal immigrant, working as a cab driver during the day and a hotel receptionist at night.
Mr. Eko Tunde in Lost (2004 — 2010)
In its six seasons on the air, ABC’s hit drama, Lost, introduced 27 major characters and a host of other minor characters — from the annoying to the endearing — but none of them were quite as complex as Mr. Eko Tunde (played by the versatile Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).
A guerrilla drug lord turned man of God, Eko had one of the best and most dynamic character arcs on the show — which makes it a damn shame we only got 28 episodes to spend with him.
Adenike in Mother of George (2013)
Directed by Andrew Dosunmu, Mother of George is a beautiful and powerful film about the Nigerian immigrant experience. It tells the story of a newly-married Nigerian couple in Brooklyn, who struggle with fertility issues.
While Issach de Bankolé’s Ayodele is a strong and well-acted character, Danai Gurira’s sympathetic Adenike is the film’s biggest draw. She embodies the relatable immigrant struggle of drifting between two worlds without ever really feeling like you belong in either.
Malcolm Adekanbi in Dope (2015)
The main reason Rick Famuyiwa’s coming-of-age dramedy, Dope, is so memorable is due to its thoughtful portrayal of a different kind of blackness — especially since so many black characters in Hollywood movies are annoying stereotypes.
The acclaimed movie follows the ambitious Malcolm Adekanbi (played with great skill by Shameik Moore), a brilliant first-generation Nigerian-American who is constantly teased for his love of ’90s hip-hop culture, punk rock and vintage sneakers.
Dr. Bennet Omalu in Concussion (2015)
While Will Smith’s laughable Nigerian accent distracted a lot of people from the movie, it’s not hard to see why Hollywood decided Dr. Bennet Omalu’s incredible story was worth the Oscar-bait biopic treatment.
The renowned physician uncovered a health scandal in American football that forever changed the sport and helped provoke a billion-dollar lawsuit. Will Smith’s accent aside, it was a strong performance that did justice to the good doctor’s impressive accomplishments.
Ola in Chewing Gum (2015 — present)
Michaela Coel’s acclaimed sex-positive comedy, Chewing Gum, is not only a showcase for its creator and star, it also has some of the most colourful supporting characters on TV — none really quite as colourful as best friend and neighbour, Ola.
Actor Olisa Odele describes his larger-than-life character best. “He’s a quadruple threat: singer, dancer, fashion icon and full-time bad bitch. Ola is very outspoken and is unapologetic for who he is and what he wants.”
Darius in Atlanta (2016 — present)
How amazing is it that the most memorable character in Donald Glover’s Emmy-winning HBO comedy, Atlanta, is a first-generation Nigerian-American? It’s not only amazing, it’s pretty damn rare.
Played by the gifted Lakeith Stanfield, Darius is as magnetic as he is eccentric. The easy-living, drug-taking philosopher is responsible for a lot of the show’s most hilarious adventures, and we can’t imagine Atlanta being as iconic without him.
Chidi Anagonye in The Good Place (2016 — present)
The Good Place, a sitcom about a flawed woman who makes it into heaven by accident, is one of the most innovative shows of this century, and Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) is the comedy’s endearing voice of reason (and worry).
In a show filled to the brim with selfish and thoughtless people, Chidi — a professor of Moral Philosophy who was born in Nigeria and raised in Senegal — is easily the best person. He is kind (to a fault), extremely intelligent and always willing to see the good in others.