Editor’s note: Noah Tsika teaches media studies at Queens College, City University of New York. His books include “Nollywood Stars” and a forthcoming history of film distribution and exhibition in Nigeria.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently elected to remove Genevieve Nnaji’s Nigerian film “Lionheart” from the Oscar race — or, at least, from competition in the category now known as Best International Feature Film — it entered fraught territory: In a decision that stems from longstanding submission guidelines, the Academy ruled “Lionheart” ineligible because it’s an English-language production. But the outrage surrounding the ruling speaks to enduring debates about the postcolonial employment of European languages — the colonizers’ tongues — and why these debates remain so contentious.
The issue goes beyond this incident. Nigeria, and Nigerians, remain so unfamiliar to the Hollywood establishment that Ridley Scott’s production company, seemingly responding as much to the star system as to the idea that black faces are interchangeable, cast Will Smith as the Nigerian pathologist Bennet Omalu in the ill-fated 2015 film “Concussion.” Smith’s exaggerated “African” accent was widely ridiculed and was an aural reminder of some of Hollywood’s longstanding representational shortcomings.
If Hollywood can’t offer remotely convincing portrayals of Nigerian characters, it’s certainly not about to wrestle with the complex Africanity of a film like “Lionheart.” The Academy’s decision may derive from specific rules applied to an award category as a whole, but it reflects a wider ignorance of postcolonial contexts in general and of Nigeria in particular. Does the English in “Lionheart” (in fact, a number of variants of that language, many of them unique to Nigeria) make the film any less Nigerian — any less “foreign”— to Hollywood? Of course not. And yet the Academy has denied the Nigerianness of a crowd-pleasing film directed by a black African woman.
The English of “Lionheart” evokes what Chinua Achebe, referring to the ongoing indigenization of that language, called “the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” The script’s proverbs and similes belong to an African vernacular tradition that has little to do with what is typically spoken in Hollywood cinema. “Lionheart,” which is steeped in Nigeria’s Igbo culture, suggests not the assimilation of Nigerian media into Hollywood’s own idiom but rather the absorption of the English language by an African culture that gives it a new (or old) “grammar of values,” to quote the anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits.
English, even in its “purest” form, has not severed any Nollywood film from the Nigerian experience. Nollywood performers bring countless cadences to the language, each a phonetic tour de force. The use of English in “Lionheart” calls to mind Salman Rushdie’s famous defense of the language’s appearance in postcolonial literary contexts in which it is constantly being reinvented—a vehicle for gestures other than obeisance to the former colonizer, and therefore often incomprehensible to the colonizing mind. Even Kenyan scholar Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has reconsidered his dogmatic opposition to English as an ongoing tool of colonization, recognizing its capacity for transformation.
As Achebe once said of the language: “We may go on resenting it because it came as part of a package deal, which included many other items of doubtful value and the positive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice.” Or we can accept that it is necessarily fed by tributaries that include the many other dialects spoken in Nigeria. In Achebe’s words, “If the English language will be able to carry the weight of… African experience… it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.” “Lionheart” does offer such a “new English,” one that isn’t quite the Queen’s, and certainly isn’t Hollywood’s.
With the Academy’s much-publicized efforts to correct a perceived “diversity problem,” it attempted to ironize “foreign” by jettisoning the word; today, it’s Best International Feature Film. Of course, languages other than English are far from “foreign” to many Americans; of course, English is itself a second or third or fourth language for many others. Changing the name of the Oscar category promised to avoid this epistemology of foreignness, but “international” clearly produces its own confusions. It calls to mind the ghettoizing function of such cognate terms as “urban” and “world,” and it underscores the (perhaps inescapable) ethnocentrism of the Academy and of the industry that the organization represents.
Film scholars are all too familiar with this dilemma. The challenge of identifying a film’s nationality is a constant hurdle. Should the criteria for national inclusion be limited to financing sources? Authorship? Narrative setting? Audience? There is no “right” answer. One needs only to choose, and to competently account for that choice. The Academy’s justifications for first accepting and finally eliminating “Lionheart” suggest that the organization is unwilling or unable to define its terms with any consistency—or to seriously consider context.
To date, only four films produced in Africa south of the Sahara have been nominated for the award formerly known as Best Foreign Language Film. The first, 1976’s French-language “Black and White in Color,” was directed by the white Frenchman Jean-Jacques Annaud; the second and third — Darrell James Roodt’s “Yesterday” (2004) and Gavin Hood’s “Tsotsi” (2005) —were made by white South Africans; only the fourth, Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu” (2014), was helmed by a black African. Even in African cinema’s scant showing at the Oscars, black African filmmakers have been woefully underrepresented.
The fault lies entirely with the Academy, especially when one considers that African films are some of the most widely seen in the world. Nollywood’s regular audience likely runs into the hundreds of millions. (The population of Nigeria alone is expected to surpass that of the United States by 2050.) That the Academy prides itself on (purportedly) valuing quality over quantity (or box-office take) is no excuse: It failed to recognize even the films of Senegalese auteur Ousmane Sembene, many of them undisputed masterpieces.
Nnaji directs warm family scenes rich with the vitality of Igbo tradition. Igbo history is openly discussed, and Nnaji’s protagonist, Adaeze, is permitted to appreciate her ample cultural inheritance, as her parents, aunts, and uncles—all repositories of tribal memory — hold court. Who, watching these scenes, could possibly argue that “Lionheart” is American in its use of English? Igbo doesn’t just dominate the film’s soundtrack; it also inflects the English that is otherwise employed. The script’s many references to Nigerian meals represent more than mere citations of “ethnic” dishes. They are love lyrics unto themselves—paeans to Nigerian cuisine that inspire extended bits of linguistic play, all of them requiring translation for the uninitiated.
“Lionheart,” as befits its Netflix imprimatur, may be one of the more “accessible” or “exportable” Nollywood films (though Nollywood has always enjoyed global popularity, its itineraries isomorphic with those of the African diaspora itself). But such accessibility has its limits. “Lionheart” is “accommodating” by degrees. By Hollywood standards, this is still very much a foreign film.
“The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use,” Achebe argues. The Academy will have to recognize this if the organization is to continue to pursue some semblance of “international” inclusivity. Weaponizing the word “English” in order to ward off the efforts of an African cinema to break cultural barriers sets a dangerous, ahistorical, and altogether ignorant precedent.
Now that Netflix is in the business of Oscar promotion, aggressively advertising films such as “Roma” and “Marriage Story,” it may have seemed wise for Nigeria’s selection committee to submit a film that the company is distributing — one that has the distinction (dubious or not) of being Nollywood’s first “Netflix Original.” What the unceremonious elimination of “Lionheart” suggests is that Academy — and by extension, Hollywood as a whole — is not yet ready to take African cinema seriously. Doing so requires careful contemplation, a nuanced consideration of cultural context. If the Academy, while taking baby steps toward diversity and inclusion, can’t do that, then what is it good for?