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Nigeria's 'Lionheart' Was Disqualified from the Oscars for Being Mostly in English

English is Nigeria's official language, but according to the Academy's rules, movies in the Best International Feature Film category must be mostly non-English.

by Bettina Makalintal
Nov 5 2019, 5:10pm

Screenshot via Netflix

Nigeria's first submission to the Academy's Best International Feature Film category—and its first entry to the Oscars in general—was disqualified from consideration yesterday on the grounds of being mostly in English, The Wrap has reported. The Academy's decision regarding Genevieve Nnaji's Lionheart comes despite the fact that Nigeria's official language is English.

With 130 acting credits to her name, Nnaji is star of the booming Nollywood scene, which produced 1,500 films per year as of 2017. Lionheart, a film in which Nnaji plays a woman taking over her family's business in a male-dominated world, is her first foray into directing, and the movie earned positive write-ups in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, even being called "groundbreaking" by the Daily Dot. The film's submission for Academy consideration seems obvious, given its glowing reception.

Per The Wrap, however, the Academy's rules for the category state that a film must have "a predominantly non-English dialogue track," and although Lionheart uses some Igbo dialogue, it's mostly in English. Many languages are spoken in Nigeria—including Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Fula, and English Creole—but English remains the country's official language, a designation that's no doubt the result of the British colonization of Nigeria.

Since the British annexation of Lagos in 1861, English has inevitably become a part of Nigerian life. "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," Nnaji wrote in response to the situation. As she added in a follow-up tweet, "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."

The Academy's decision regarding Lionheart is even more perplexing given that Best International Feature Film is a new and allegedly more inclusive name for the category once known as Best Foreign Language Film, the Root has pointed out. “We have noted that the reference to ‘Foreign’ is outdated within the global filmmaking community,” Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, co-chairs of the International Feature Film Committee, said in a statement in April. “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.”

Vocal pushback to Lionheart's disqualification is now playing out online, with a tweet from director Ava DuVernay having picked up over 80,000 likes as of this writing. "Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?" DuVernay wrote.

Despite the Academy's previous announcement regarding steps toward global inclusivity, it's clear that the group's distinctions are arbitrary and based on an America-centric point of view. As director Bong Joon-ho, whose film Parasite remains a top contender in the Best International Feature Film category, said last month, "The Oscars are not an international film festival. They’re very local."

While Lionheart is no longer in the Oscar running, the film can still be streamed on Netflix.

Tagged:
NIGERIA
nollywood
lionheart
the academy of motion picture arts and sciences
oscars 2020
Genevieve Nnaji