The Academy’s Best International Feature Film committee has disqualified the first-ever Nigerian entry, Genevieve Njaji’s Netflix pickup “Lionheart,” because it is mostly in the English language. Since 2006, the Oscar rules dictate that eligible movies must have a “predominantly non-English dialogue track,” a move made in an attempt to open up more opportunities for films from diverse cultures.
In this case, the official language of Nigeria, which was colonized by the British, is in fact English. The film’s 95-minute running time contains only 11 minutes of non-English dialogue in Igbo, a language of the ethnic group of the Igbo people, making it ineligible for the Best International Feature Film nom. If Nigeria submitted a film which included dialogue that included more than 50 percent in the Igbo language, it would still be eligible. And “Lionheart” can still be submitted for consideration in Best Picture and other categories.
This has happened before; Israel had to come up with another Oscar entry back in 2008 when “The Band’s Visit” didn’t meet the 50/50 English versus non-English language standard.
This current rule is why Ireland, the U.K., and Australia often submit films to the Academy that are not in English. This year’s Irish entry “Gaza” was filmed in Arabic. Other films that have also not been eligible in recent years include American films in a foreign language, like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (filmed in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew), “Menashe,” whose characters spoke Yiddish, and Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” which was shot mostly in Mandarin.
After the news was announced, filmmaker Ava DuVernay led a fierce Twitter protest against the ruling: “Are you banning this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?”
“Colonialism really is a bitch,” added Franklin Leonard, founder of the Black List.
Now the record 93 International Oscar entries are down to 92, tied with last year. And the record number of women directors in the category is now 28 instead of 29. One upside: the Oscar fuss could make the film more visible to potential viewers on Netflix, curious to see an awards contender taken out of the fray too early.
UPDATE: The Academy stands by its ruling in a statement:
“In April 2019, we announced that the name of the Foreign Language Film category changed to International Feature Film. We also confirmed that the rules for the category would not change. The intent of the award remains the same — to recognize accomplishment in films created outside of the United States in languages other than English. As this year’s submitted films were evaluated, we discovered that ‘Lionheart’ includes only 11 minutes of non-English dialogue, which makes it ineligible for this award category.”