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The Academy’s Mistake With “Lionheart” And Lessons For The Colonised

“Because it is a systematised negation of the other, a frenzied determination to deny the other any attribute of humanity, colonialism forces the colonised to constantly ask the question: ‘Who am I in reality?’”
‪ ~Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.

Following the announcement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) that Nigeria’s first-ever nominated film for the Best International Feature Film, Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart had been disqualified for being portrayed predominantly in English language—Nigeria’s official language no thanks to being colonised by Great Britain—a collective deafening outrage greeted it. Much more though, it resurrected the question of how the barbaric act of colonialism continues to hinder the sociocultural and political progressiveness of the colonised.

The Academy noted that the award aims “to recognize accomplishment in films created outside of the United States in languages other than English” and cited its reason to disqualify Lionheart thus: “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.” Award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay criticized the decision, noting that The Academy “disqualified Nigeria’s first-ever submission for Best International Feature because it’s 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?”

While disagreements have continued to grow on the extensive meanings and interpretations of the category’s changed name from the Foreign Language Film category to International Feature Film since April 2019, one thing doesn’t change in this context: history. Nigeria’s borderline history with Colonialism until its political independence in 1960, juxtaposed with the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern protectorate in 1914, throws even more chaos into the nature of “unity in diversity.”

Chief Godswill Obiagu (Nkem Owoh) and Adaeze (Genevieve Nnaji) in Lionheart

This also reopens the discussion about where the concept of ethnic diversity merges and often clashes with guidelines, with Nigeria being so ethnically and linguistically diverse that the nation has been termed by one writer as the “crossroad” of ethnic identities. Lionheart features the Igbo and the Hausa languages spoken by millions of people of different cultural groups across the world, with the English language effortlessly connecting the lines of cultural dialectical divides. It also explores vital sociocultural issues mostly peculiar to Nigeria—and Africa by extension—which I highlighted in my review of Lionheart.

Polarising questions have emerged too. Should Lionheart have been made entirely in Igbo or Hausa? If so, what does that say about Nigeria’s ‘official’ language—the English language—as some have argued that it remains the connecting thread to an ethnically diverse, culturally intrinsic, yet unapologetically distinct feature of a nation? An idea Lionheart director, Genevieve Nnaji noted in her response: “This includes English which acts as a bridge between the 500+ languages spoken in our country; thereby making us #OneNigeria.” What does that say about the place of making a movie, not for awards but to tell a story most identifiable to a people? Most importantly, what does that say about the “Nigerian English” which the Nigerian people have invented as an extension of its original British brother? “To borrow from Achebe: What you hear when you watch Lionheart is Igbo masked as English. Our English is a Nigerian language and it’s alive and thriving and inventive: ‘swallow’ for fufu; I cannot come and kill myself etc.,” noted author Professor Chika Unigwe in response to The Academy’s decision. “The Academy is wrong.”

And like Ava rightly mentioned, where does this place the future of Nigeria’s cinematic works vis-à-vis the Oscar as they most likely will border on language, with the English language, regrettably, an eternal part of us no thanks to colonial rule?

On the latter observation though, a few lessons are to be learned by the colonised: First, there is nothing to be gained by seeking western validations. If truth be told, the Oscar which Africans fight over, is an American award, and thus, local. Allowing for entries from other countries does not automatically translate into making it an international award. As such, it is of paramount importance that we cut down on the desperation for western validations. As a rule of thumb, ask: how many ‘Hollywood’ movies are submitted annually to the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) for consideration? The colonised’s skewed mentality that anything western is “superior” must be emphatically rejected.

Secondly, if Lionheart’s disqualification forces Nollywood’s Hausa filmmaker to make a movie entirely in the Chadic Hausa Language—spoken by a combined 62 million people in Northern Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ghana, Togo and even Germany in Western Europe—according to the reference online and print publication Ethnologue, it would have been worth it. If this compels the Igbo filmmaker to make a film exclusively in the Igbo language—spoken by more than 20 million people in Nigeria alone, and no thanks to the barbaric Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, spoken in both South and North Americas, the Caribbean, and Ethiopia among other African nations—it would have been worth it. Same as for Efik, Yoruba, Tiv, Urhobo and so on.

If Lionheart’s disqualification finally forces us to realise that we cannot speak English more than the original owners no matter what we intend to do with the English language (apologies to Pa Chinua Achebe); that we must embrace and explore those values, ideals, and unique traits most akin to us, then we—the colonised—would have learned valuable lessons from The Academy’s mistake.

To engage me on Facebook, follow @ Eleanya Ndukwe Jr.

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