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Lionheart’s Oscar disqualification penalises Nigeria for being colonised

08 Nov 2019

Still via Lionheart / The Entertainment Network

Nigeria’s first-ever Oscars entry, Lionheart, is officially out of the running. A few days ago, it was announced that the Academy ruled that Lionheart was unfit to be nominated for Best International Feature Film, as the category requires films to mostly be in a language other than English.

The 2018 film is a well-shot drama starring and directed by Nollywood icon Genevieve Nnaji, whose consistent acting prowess led her to becoming a household name in the region. Currently showing on Netflix, within Nigeria and abroad, the reception to the film has been mostly positive and celebratory. The New York Times’ Ben Kenisberg praised the movie as representing “globally minded filmmaking that is also comfortingly familiar”.

However, the Academy justified their decision by citing a rule that this category requires the dialogue of the films to be mostly in a non-English language. Co-chair Larry Karaszewski essentially blamed the controversial decision on the filmmaker’s “misunderstanding”. Speaking to Deadline, he said: “If you’re submitting for something as important as an Academy Award, I would think you should look at the rules.”

While it is true that the rules are outlined for each category, this scandal shows how arbitrary the rules are. For most of the recent decade, the best picture award has gone to either a British or an American film. Meanwhile, international films must jump through a myriad of hoops to gain recognition by the Academy. This unrealistic expectation suggests that countries should conceal English speaking aspects of their culture and history.

It’s not surprising that an institution steeped in whiteness fails to appreciate the nuance of modern non-Western cultures and chooses to focus on language instead. This also isn’t the first time that this particular category has come under scrutiny. The Academy attempted to modernise the category this year by changing the name from Best Foreign Language Film to Best International Feature Film, due to outdated views on what is seen as “foreign”. However, this scandal shows the change to be superficial because films made elsewhere must conform to stringent and arbitrary rules to prove their “otherness”.

“Films made elsewhere must conform to stringent and arbitrary rules to prove their ‘otherness’”

The biggest problem with this disappointing ruling is that it punishes Nigeria for being colonised by the British. Given that the official language of Nigeria is English and it’s used nationally as a communicative bridge between the many tribes, to require any film of note coming out of Nigeria to deny their lived realities to qualify for an Oscar is unrealistic. In everyday Nigerian life, people slip in and out of multiple tongues from pidgin to Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo. This sheer linguistic diversity requires movies to blend the native languages with English to broaden the film’s audience and impact. The dialogue of the film does actually include frequent but not dominant dialogue in Igbo.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of backlash against the Academy’s decision to disqualify Lionheart. For instance, the filmmaker Ava DuVernay stated in a tweet: “Are you barring this country from ever competing in an Oscar in its official language?” This, from another successful black, woman director is evidence of the obvious unfairness in the rules that govern the category.

Genevieve Nnaji, the Lionheart actor, producer and director also spoke up on the topic. Replying to Ava’s tweet she thanked her for the support and said, “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.”

Beyond the language debacle, it’s also a fair representation of how Nigerians relate to one another in terms of age, family, gender and class. Genevieve Nnaji stars as Adaeze Obiagu, a daughter who takes over the family business when her father becomes significantly ill. Genre-wise, the movie is a drama involving issues such as ambition, jealousy, loyalty, legacy and the pros and cons of family ties. By being women-led and women-directed, it’s a monumental film for the Nollywood industry,

The film is notable in the sense that the drama in the storyline bucks the Nollywood trend of focusing on black magic,  superstition, or infidelity. Although the traditional Nollywood canon of movies with all of its complex and multi-layered storylines are fascinating and earned the country global attention for its unique style, Lionheart shifts the perception of what Nollywood is capable of. Nigerians seem to appreciate that it attempts to forge a new era where Nollywood can have raw, low-budget films as well as more ambitious storylines and themes.

Beyond that, the movie deals with the difficulties faced by women in the workplace such as sexual harassment, patronising tones from men and being overlooked in terms of leadership roles. In Nollywood, and Nigeria at large, these topics are often seen as taboo or discussed in ways that end up being reductive than productive. Contextually the film is a huge feat, centring women’s narratives and making great strides in on-screen representation.

The disqualification of Lionheart shines a light on the limits of the Oscars. Genre-defying and boundary-breaking stories can be excluded because of the woeful diversity in categorisation. The premise that an international film is defined by having mostly non-English dialogue raises political questions about what an international film has to be in order to be recognised by the prestigious committee.

“Contextually the film is a huge feat, centring women’s narratives and making great strides in on-screen representation”

#OscarsSoWhite is evidently still relevant over four years after it became a buzzword for addressing Hollywood’s lack of diversity. But it isn’t just about diversity in terms of race. It’s about diversity in terms of how people can present themselves in order to be worthy of being rewarded. Every year the Academy has been increasingly under scrutiny, due to its white majority boards and the ways categories are regulated. 

Overall, the exclusion of Lionheart from competing in the category is indicative of wider patterns of exclusion and dismissal faced by non-European films. Historically, most of the winners of the category have been non-English speaking countries in Europe. Stories should not have to pigeon-hole their realities when competing for recognition. Basing an award category on its linguistic distance from English erases the stories of English speaking parts of the non-Western world, many of which are former colonies. Countries should not be punished for their history and development of language in a global and interconnected world.

This is just another example of the problem with the Oscars and other “prestigious” awarding bodies in the Western world. This incident raises questions of whether African films should look to such biased awards for recognition and celebration. The Best International Feature Film is in desperate need of an update but perhaps this is another wake-up call to stop viewing the Oscars as the ultimate marker of cinematic success.

Since a film from Nigeria probably won’t qualify for any other Academy Award category, this instance exposes that Hollywood’s gatekeepers lack an interest in African stories when they aren’t presented in a specific way. All in all, upset at Nigeria’s disqualification is justified despite the fact that the film did not meet the category’s criteria. The issue is not Lionheart’s eligibility but the way that the category’s rules erased a story that was told authentically.