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The Oscars disqualified 'Lionheart' because Nigerians speak English in it — just like in Nigeria

A Nollywood movie without anyone speaking English wouldn't be authentic to the director's vision. Why should she be punished for colonialism's reach?
Nollywood star Genevieve Nnaji makes her directorial debut and plays the lead in Netflix's first Nigerian Original film, \"Lionheart.\"
Nollywood star Genevieve Nnaji makes her directorial debut and plays the lead in Netflix's first Nigerian original film, "Lionheart."Netflix

On Monday, Nov. 4, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their devastating decision to disqualify Nigeria's entry in the best international film category, Genevieve Nnaji's feminist and emotionally searing "Lionheart," from the 2020 Oscars race. Apparently, the film had not been vetted by the academy’s International Feature Film Award Executive Committee prior to the Oct. 7 announcement of qualifying films, when it was first named.

The academy, which has recently changed the name of the category from "best foreign language film" to "best international film," disqualified "Lionheart" under the rule that best international film entries must boast "a predominantly non-English dialogue track." It should be noted that in addition to English, the Nigerian language Igbo is also spoken throughout "Lionheart," Netflix's first original film from Nigeria.

A female trailblazer for African cinema, Nnaji began her career in Nigeria's burgeoning film industry, known colloquially as Nollywood, as a child star on soap operas and in commercials, moving into films as first an actor, then a producer and now a director. "Lionheart," her directorial debut, follows Adaeze (Nnaji), a whip-smart businesswoman who is desperately trying to save her father's transport company in the wake of his illness and her fraught relationship with her uncle.

But perhaps more important than the plot or its talented director-star, is an understanding of the history of Nigerian filmmaking and Britain's century-long rule over the country.

Though Nollywood is now one of the top film industries in the world, it only got its start in the 1960s, when Nigerian film pioneers like Ola Balogun realized in the post-colonial era that an entire country of people, with a rich culture and traditions, were looking outward — toward Hollywood — for their entertainment. Nigeria has always been pulsing with its own stories to tell. Along with Balogun, Hubert Ogunde, Jab Adu, Moses Olayia and Eddie Ugboma became the first generation of Nigerian filmmakers, setting the foundation for an industry that would explode in the 1990s.

Reeling from the imprint of colonization and teetering under the weight of decades of government instability, a ban on imports and a massive economic crisis, Nigerian filmmakers, artists and entrepreneurs had to find new ways to make movies and distribute them without the high overhead costs of traditional film. Using VHS systems, which were cheaper and more widely available, producer Kenneth Nnebue launched Nigeria's home-video industry in 1992 with his first straight-to-video movie, "Living in Bondage."

From there, cinema in Nigeria became a nearly $700 million a year phenomena.

With some 45 films debuting in Nigeria each week, straight-to-video movies still make up a massive part of Nigerian film production. However, distribution has expanded well beyond its early days, and into cinema houses and on to streaming platforms like YouTube and Netflix. Kemi Adetiba's 2016 "The Wedding Party" became the highest-grossing Nigerian film of all time until it's 2017 sequel, Niyi Akinmolayan's "The Wedding Party 2: Destination Dubai" broke that record. Both films, which, like "Lionheart," showcase English, Yoruba and Igbo dialogue, are currently streaming on Netflix.

With so much cinema pouring out of Nigeria, film producer Alex Eyengho defined Nollywood films as "the totality of activities taking place in the Nigerian film industry, be it English, Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Itsekiri, Edo, Efik, Ijaw, Urhobo or any other of the over 300 Nigerian languages."

Nigeria's movies, like Nigeria, reflects all of the country's languages, including English, the languages of the British colonizers who first came to Lagos in 1851. That is why the academy's decision to disqualify "Lionheart" from the best international film category is incredibly offensive to Nigeria, Nollywood and the dozens of countries globally whose official language is English not because they chose it, but because it was chosen for them. Hollywood is ignoring the global history of colonization and how it has shifted, shaped and profoundly affected cultures and communities throughout the world.

On Twitter, filmmaker Ava DuVernay asked, "To The Academy, You disqualified Nigeria's first-ever submission for Best International Feature because its in English. But English is the official language of Nigeria. Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?"

Nnaji tweeted: "I am the director of “Lionheart. This movie represents the way we speak as Nigerians. This includes English which acts as a bridge between the 500+ languages spoken in our country; thereby making us #OneNigeria." She added: "It's no different to how French connects communities in former French colonies. We did not choose who colonized us. As ever, this film and many like it, is proudly Nigerian."

It's additionally curious to consider how "Lionheart's" acquisition by Netflix may have affected the academy's decision. As the global streaming service has garnered more and more traction, making its way into esteemed awards shows like the Golden Globes, British Academy Film Awards and the Academy Awards, Hollywood has done everything in its power to keep the streaming giant at bay. Since Netflix’s first feature-length Oscar contender in 2015 — the Idris Elba-led, "Beasts of No Nation" — the streaming giant has played by the rules, getting theatrical distribution as is required for awards qualification. However, the hostility between Netflix and the powers that be has continued, as typified by Cannes' director Thierry Frémaux's comments to Variety ahead of the 2018 festival: "Netflix is welcome at Cannes, outside of the competition."

But by shutting out Netflix, Hollywood is also silencing marginalized voices like filmmakers Dee Rees, Julie Dash, DuVernay and Nnaji, who, through Netflix, get their work presented on a global stage. As DuVernay, who directed "When They See Us," tweeted: "One of the things I value about Netflix is that it distributes black work far and wide. I've had just one film distributed wide internationally. Not 'Selma.' Not 'Wrinkle.' It was '13th.' By Netflix. That matters."

The academy's choice to shut out "Lionheart" from the best international film category is not only a slight to African cinema, it's a snub to Black women filmmakers across the diaspora who are being told yet again that they aren't good enough. Nnaji's "Lionheart" powerfully displays Igbo and Nigerian culture without centering war, rape, colonization or genocide, elevating the experiences of Nigerian women who are still chipping away at pervasive sexism across all industries.This is Nigerian representation at its finest, and to suggest otherwise is a disturbing act of colonialism over a film industry that has thrived independently for decades.