Photo credit: Lionheart still, Netflix

On November 5, 2019, African Twitter was abuzz with the news that Lionheart (2018), Nigeria’s first ever submission to the Academy Awards, was disqualified on the grounds that it contained too much English dialogue. The disqualification provoked Twitter responses from several African authors and other prominent individuals of the African literary scene who have written or published in precisely the language that Lionheart was disqualified for — English.

Lionheart recounts the story of Adaeze, a businesswoman trying to save her father’s company. It was acquired by Netflix in 2018 and the first Netflix original film produced in Nigeria. The film was chosen by Nigeria’s Oscar selection committee for submission to the 2020 Academy Awards under the International Feature Film category. The category had been renamed earlier this year from “Foreign Language Film” category for the reason that “foreign” was an “outdated” term. As Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, co-chairs of the International Feature Film Committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, explain in an April 23 statement:

We have noted that the reference to ‘Foreign’ is outdated within the global filmmaking community […]. We believe that International Feature Film better represents this category, and promotes a positive and inclusive view of filmmaking, and the art of film as a universal experience.

Regardless of the name change, the category’s rules for submission remained the same. Films eligible for consideration are films that are feature-length, produced outside the United States, and have a “predominantly non-English dialogue track.” According to a widely reported November 5 statement by the Academy, Lionheart was disqualified because it “includes only 11 minutes of non-English dialogue, which makes it ineligible for the [International Feature Film] category.”

Lionheart‘s disqualification provoked the Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay to speak up on Twitter on behalf of the film.

Ava DuVernay’s tweet, which makes the significant point that English is the official language of Nigeria, opened up discussion among African literati along several lines. We document them below.

1. The Linguistic Status of Nigerian English 

Among the responses to DuVernay’s tweet were those from the Nigerian author Chika Unigwe, who writes in English and Dutch, and the Nigerian linguist, writer, translator, and scholar Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún. For Unigwe and Túbọ̀sún, Lionheart’s disqualification is not only a failure on the part of the Academy to recognize that English is the official language of Nigeria, as DuVernay points out. It is also a failure on the part of the Academy to recognize that Nigerian English is distinctive enough to be considered a “foreign” language.

For Unigwe, Túbọ̀sún, and others, the Academy’s disqualification of Lionheart marked an inability or perhaps even a refusal to acknowledge that English in Nigeria – and possibly other Global South countries where English is widely spoken – is only English in name. To them, Nigerian English should be considered a language of its own, and “foreign” to audiences of British or American English.

2. The Pernicious Legacies of Colonialism

In a piece subsequently published on African Arguments, Túbọ̀sún elaborated on his Twitter response as noted above. However, Túbọ̀sún goes a step further in his argument there. While he affirms that “Nigerian English is a Nigerian language and already a veritable medium of our artistic and creative expressions,” he also notes that perhaps part of the reason why Lionheart was disqualified is because Nigerian English has never been recognized as an official language. As he continues, “Our own inscrutable refusal to codify and officially recognize [Nigerian English] as such [i.e., as a Nigerian language] at home is the other part of the problem.” That refusal, he suspects, is due to an inability to shake off the mindset of the colonized:

We are a colonised people so we retain a belief in the inviolability of the foreign [i.e. British] English variant, even when we cannot successfully imitate it without creating a hilarious impression. We think that accepting a “Nigerian English” means conceding defeat and accepting a “ghetto“ version of a language so graciously bequeathed to us.

In her response to DuVernay’s tweet, the Zimbabwean author and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga similarly points to the issue of colonialism and language articulated in Túbọ̀sún’s African Arguments article, albeit from a different angle. For Dangarembga, DuVernay’s tweet called attention to the way that the Academy’s rules for the International Feature Film category does not take into account the cultural legacies of colonialism. The fact that Lionheart was disqualified for its use of English signals a bias on the part of the Academy against submissions from former British colonies like Nigeria, where English is the official language of the country primarily because it was a former British colony.

For Túbọ̀sún, Dangarembga, and others, Lionheart’s disqualification underscored the need to grasp the extent to which the history of British colonialism in Africa and elsewhere continues to bear on cultural practices and production.

3. The Nigerian Oscar Selection Committee’s Oversight

Ava DuVernay’s tweet also prompted a response from Lionheart’s director Genevieve Nnaji, who made her directorial debut with the film and who also stars as the film’s main character. Nnaji adds that English acts as a kind of social glue in a country of over 500 languages, just as how French acts as a social glue in former multilingual and multiethnic French colonies.

Building on Nnaji’s second tweet, Nigerian creative writer, critic and journalist Molara Wood suggested that the submission of Lionheart as a film in English from a former British colony in Africa should not be any different from the submission of, for example, a film in French from a former French colony in Africa. Both types of films, she notes, would be “foreign language” films.

However, in response to Molara Wood, Cassava Republic Press co-founder and publishing director Bibi Bakare-Yusuf points out that the language of the Academy rules for submission were specifically “non-English,” not “foreign language” (the counter-argument to which, as noted earlier in Unigwe and Túbọ̀sún’s responses, would be that Nigerian English is a “foreign language”). For Bakare-Yusuf, the issue at hand is the failure of the Nigerian selection committee to simply comprehend the rules correctly:

Nigerian journalists and critics Harry Itie and Oris Aigbokhaevbolo similarly demanded accountability from the Nigerian Oscar Selection Committee.

In a statement following Lionheart’s disqualification that was obtained by TheCable Lifestyle, the chair of the Nigerian Oscar Selection Committee Chineze Anyaene noted that one of the challenges faced by the Nigerian film industry is the need to use English in order to reach a wider audience – a point which echoes Nnaji’s tweets. Anyaene also acknowledged the committee’s oversight, and gestured toward the committee’s efforts to create awareness about the requirements for future Nigerian submissions to the Academy Awards’s “International Feature Film” category:

Lionheart passed on other technical requirements from the story, to sound and picture except for language as adjudged by the Academy screening matrix, which was a challenge for the committee at a time.  This is an eye-opener and a step forward into growing a better industry.

As these insights from various individuals in the African literary scene demonstrate, Lionheart’s disqualification, while disappointing, proved an opportunity to reconsider questions of the place of English in Africa and African cultural production, if not the “horizon of expectation” for African cultural works circulating globally, and the very definition of “foreign” itself – questions that continue to bear as well on the writing and reception of African literature. But Oscar-nominated or not, Lionheart is still worth a watch.