“We Did Not Choose Who Colonized Us”

Why the Academy’s Disqualification of Lionheart Was a Form of Linguicism

Graphic by Anuli Akanegbu

NOTE: I thought the following paper I wrote last year for my Cinema Studies final is particularly relevant to the conversation about the decision made by The Golden Globes to put Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film about a Korean American family in 1980s Arkansas, in the Best Foreign Language Film category instead of the best Dramatic Film category. This mirrors the conversation about language and imperialism that I wrote about last year when the Nigerian film, Lionheart, was disqualified from the Best International Film category of the 2020 Oscars.

INTRODUCTION

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is a membership organization that hosts the Academy Awards. Based in Beverly Hills, CA, the AMPAS (which I will henceforth refer to as the “Academy”) describes itself as “a global organization, representing the best of an international art form, and has members in countries all over the world.” On the surface, the Academy’s decision to introduce a “Best Foreign Language Film” category to its annual ceremony in 1956 represented a step towards embracing the universality of filmmaking. However, in this essay, I argue that the category of “Foreign Language Film,” which was recently renamed “Best International Feature Film” ahead of the Academy’s 92nd ceremony, has long served as a vehicle of linguistic imperialism and ghettoization. After all, no foreign-language film has ever won a Best Picture Oscar in the ninety-one Academy Awards ceremonies hosted by the organization. Plus, a majority of the winners of the “Foreign Language Film” category over the years have hailed from European countries (Feldberg 2019). [1]

In this essay, I will use the Academy’s decision to disqualify Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart (2018), Nigeria’s submission to the newly-minted “Best International Feature Film” category, as well as Sudabeh Mortezai’s Joy (2018), Austria’s submission to the category, to discuss the epistemology of foreignness in cinema. I have chosen these films because I find it worthwhile to draw attention to the fact that the two films that have been disqualified for not meeting the Academy’s eligibility requirement of using non-English dialogue[2] are films that were either produced in Nigeria or produced about Nigerian protagonists.

This raises two major issues with the Academy’s use of one category to represent a world of work: (1) the language requirement automatically excludes entries from British colonies like Nigeria where English is widely spoken, and (2) it assumes an oppositional relationship between the language of English and the culture of a country outside of the United States. Lulu Wang, the director of The Farewell (2018)[3], summarized these points well in a tweet in support of Lionheart director Genevieve Nanji. She expressed that Lionheart’s disqualification, “calls attention to the delineation of ‘foreign film’ vs ‘foreign-language film.” Wang went on to ask: “Can a ‘foreign film’ be in OUR language (i.e. English)? Can a domestic (i.e. American) film be in a foreign language? What does it mean to be foreign? And to be American?” Overall, this essay aims to address the question of what it means to be Nigerian by exploring the history of the Nigerian film industry and the mediated representations of Nigerian culture in Lionheart[4] and Joy.

SECTION 1: Nigeria’s Cinematic History

I will provide an abridged history of Nigeria’s film industry in order to articulate how films like Lionheart and Joy contribute to the representations of Nigeria and its people on-screen. To start, it should be acknowledged that although Nigeria’s film industry is referred to globally as “Nollywood,” the controversial moniker best represents films produced in the Southern region of the country (Larkin 2008, 184). African filmmaking by Africans started in the 1950s (Akinola 2013), but it is arguably the birth of Nollywood — which is widely agreed to have been ushered by the release of Ken Nnebue’s Living in Bondage[5] in 1992 — that capitulated Nigeria’s film industry into the spotlight both nationally and internationally.

While I may believe that the Nigerian film industry has, for better or for worse, become synonymous with Nollywood, I do not classify all films produced in Nigeria as “Nollywood-style” films. This is because Nollywood-style films tend to follow a particular cadence and depict specific themes. In an essay about the birth of Nollywood, Onuzulike (2007) explains: “Most Nigerian movies deal with social and moral issues, and the themes addressed include betrayal, infidelity, love, and revenge. The most popular genres include love, romance, history, folklore, witchcraft, juju, and drama (25).” While Nollywood-style films also deal with these issues, I agree with Larkin’s (2008) distinction of the Nollywood-style as films with plots often “driven by family conflicts” and also possessing what he describes as, “a strong element of the grotesque in elites’ and family to gain wealth that they will display in the surface expressions of houses and interior decoration, rich clothing, and beautiful cars (184).” Nollywood films have a strong preoccupation with elitism. Akinola (2013) suggests that this may reflect Nigerian culture as a whole when he writes, “Even if a national conference was convened for Nigerians to dialogue about their future as a people, the dialogue might be dominated by elites whose ideas might not properly represent the feelings of the people (22).”

In an essay about Tyler Perry’s portrayal of middle- and upper-middle-class Blacks in the United States during the early 2000s, Harris & Tassie (2012) assert that the characters in Perry’s films serve as, “a cinematic incarnation of E. Franklin Frazier’s scathing characterization of middle-and upper-class Blacks in his pioneering book, The Black Bourgeoisie (323).” Perry’s characters are framed as “(1) materialistic and status-obsessed, (2) dysfunctional and abusive, and (3) disdainful of working-and lower-class Blacks (Harris & Tassie 2012, 323).” The same can be said about the mediated representations of the middle- and upper-middle class Nigerians (as well as those who aspire to these class statues) in Nollywood-style films. This perfectly describes the characters in Kemi Adetiba’s 2016 Nollywood film The Wedding Party which was the highest-grossing Nigerian film of all time until its 2017 sequel, Niyi Akinmolayan’s The Wedding Party 2: Destination Dubai broke that record. Although I believe that Lionheart and Joy should not be classified as standard Nollywood-style films, they do share some commonalities with Nollywood films like Living in Bondage and The Wedding Party. I will dedicate the next section to pointing out these commonalities. I will also examine how Lionheart and Joy represent Nigerian culture while challenging stereotypes of Nigerian filmmaking that are rooted in criticisms of the dominating Nollywood-style.

SECTION 2: Mediated Representations of Nigeria’s Culture in Lionheart and Joy

Nollywood films are not considered to be holistic representations of Nigerian culture. One reason for this is that Nollywood producers and marketers are overwhelmingly Igbo though it should not be thought that Igbo people alone “own” Nollywood (Haynes 2016, xxiii). Nollywood is largely associated with Southern Nigeria because Nollywood films are typically shot in English and in one of the “big three” indigenous languages of Nigeria: Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa.[6] The majority of the Igbo and Yoruba populations in Nigeria reside in the country’s southern region [7]where, as Haynes (2016, xxiii) claims, the medium of English allowed them to enter and eventually dominate the industry. Living in Bondage and Lionheart are films that were produced by Igbo filmmakers and feature predominantly Igbo leads while the majority of the characters in the Wedding Party and its sequel were Yoruba.

Although descriptions of Joy generalize its protagonists by describing them singularly as young Nigerian women caught in the vicious cycle of sex trafficking, it is important to acknowledge the film’s uniqueness in centering its story on at least one main character who is not a member of one of Nigeria’s “big three” ethnic groups. Most of the film is shot in Vienna, Austria which serves as the setting for a harrowing tale of the perils of sex trafficking, but the film’s opening scene clearly distinguishes the ethnic background of Precious, one of the film’s leads.

Joy opens with a scene where a man is plucking the feathers off a chicken while chanting in Bini, the primary native language of the Edo people of Edo State which is located in the Midwest region of Nigeria. This man is a witch doctor, similar to the kind of witch doctor portrayed in Living in Bondage who takes advantage of the desperation of his clients to get rich. The scene depicts a ritual illustrative of what Americans would call “witchcraft,” but Nigerians know as “juju.” In fact, the “juju” genre of filmmaking was established by Living in Bondage. This connects Joy to the cinematic tenor set by Nollywood filmmakers even though it is not a standard Nollywood film by my determination. Precious visits the witch doctor ahead of her move from Nigeria to Austria, at the request of her family, in hopes that his ritual will protect her while in Europe. What she does not realize at this time is that after the ritual she will be indebted to the witch doctor and sold into prostitution once she arrives in Europe. This arrangement was made for her by her family, the witch doctor, and her soon-to-be house madame. This has become common in depictions of “juju” on-screen which are inspired by the real-life uses of the practice even today.

Since this film deals with issues of emigration, its use of language is particularly noteworthy. Similar to most Nigerian films, whether in the Nollywood-style or outside of it, the characters in Joy play with linguistic hybridity, or the mixing of languages to create hybrid forms of language.[8] This linguistic hybridity is best illustrated in a scene in the film that takes place in the house Precious lives in once she arrives in Austria and is sold to her first madame. In this scene, the sex workers living in the house with Precious and Joy, the titular character, line up to hand over their earnings to the house madame as a means of paying off their debt for their travels to Europe. As she collects money from each woman, the house madame speaks in hybridity of English and Pidgin. Most of the film’s dialogue is in English and Pidgin, but there are also scenes where we see Joy speak in German. This suggests that Joy has been in Germany long enough to have learned the language. Although Joy is primarily set in Austria and Lionheart is set in Nigeria, one thing that connects the characters to a Nigerian identity is their use of language. The characters in both films, akin to the characters in most Nigerian films, showcase linguistic hybridity. They tend to speak in English, Pidgin, and one or two additional indigenous dialects depending on where the film is set.

Lionheart tells the story of Adaeze[9], a woman who steps up to run the family business (a bus company called “Lionheart Transport”) — alongside her uncle — when her father falls ill[10]. In the film’s opening scene a group of thugs set out to cause trouble at the Lionheart Transport company. One of the thugs exclaims to Adaeze in Igbo[11], “When you come to Nigeria, you act like a Nigerian.” The issue of acting like a Nigerian is at the center of the film and the controversy surrounding the Academy’s decision to pull it from the Best International Feature Film category. The usage of language in Lionheart is particularly nuanced. The majority of the film’s dialogue is in English, but Igbo and Pidgin are also spoken.[12] Similar to the Nigerian characters in Joy, the characters in Lionheart are skilled in linguistic hybridity. Igbo is used in specific contexts in Lionheart. For instance, greetings and pleasantries are primarily expressed in Igbo. And, characters often switch freely between English, Igbo, and Pidgin over the course of just one conversation. A great example of this linguistic hybridity occurs in a scene where Adeaze’s mother is consoling her with a pep talk after she learns that her father has asked her uncle Godswil to serve as co-Managing Director of the company instead of trusting her to lead the company on her own. When Adaeze suggests that her father did not select her for the position because she is a woman, her mother admonishes her in English and tells her to “Sit up and then shut up” to listen to the wisdom that she is about to impart before quickly switching to Igbo to say, “Think before you speak.” Then she immediately switches back to English to reassure Adaeze that her father loves and appreciates her and has his own reasons for selecting her uncle for the role that has nothing to do with Adaeze’s gender.

The close relationship Adaeze’s father, Earnest, has with his brother, Godswil, is conveyed, in part, by their use of language when they are in conversation with one another. The use of Igbo, their mother tongue, indicates intimacy between the characters. Separately, Godswil also speaks in Igbo when he is angry. Igbo is evoked in business meetings when characters want to loosen the air of formality that is inherent in corporate settings to more fully express their feelings about a situation. In a scene at the one-hour mark of the film, Godswil switches from English to angrily yell at a competitor named Igwe Pascale[13] in Igbo who interrupts a Lionheart Transport board meeting at the request of a conniving Lionheart board member named Samuel. Igwe Pascale interrupts the meeting to announce that he is interested in buying out Lionheart for $3BN (three-billion Naira)[14]. It is evident that Igwe Pascale wants to take advantage of Lionheart Transport’s financial troubles.

The scene where Godswil and Adaeze first learn that the company is suffering financially is another scene that highlights the unique use of language in Nigeria. In this scene, Godswil and Adaeze meet with an auditor and the auditor’s two assistants to discuss Lionheart Transport’s finances. One of the auditor’s assistants spoke only in English while the other spoke only in Igbo. They stand behind her back similar to how the role of the conscience is often depicted in visual media as one “good angel” and one “bad angel,” except in this context they represent two sides of Nigerian, one in English (representative of the influence of an “outside” culture), and one in a native dialect (representative of the country’s indigenous tradition). This scene is important because it suggests that not everyone in Nigerian fluctuates between languages. Some Nigerians, like the auditor’s assistants, are monolingual. Additionally, it demonstrates how the use of multiple languages is common in everyday interactions in Nigeria.

The dialogue in the two films are also connected by the use of proverbs which are common across Nigerian ethnic groups. For example, the witchdoctor in the opening scene of Joy speaks in proverbs such as “A witch cannot kill a baby without the Iroko tree knowing.”[15] This proverb is essentially used by the witchdoctor as a way of threatening Precious to not go against his orders when she gets to Europe. In Lionheart, Godswil, who is Adaeze’s uncle, speaks in proverbs throughout the film, often interjecting Igbo proverbs into English conversations. In a scene where he wants to convince Adaeze to go along with his proposal to merge Lionheart with another competitor Godswil says, “Since the food is delicious and the soup looks good then what stops the visitor from eating?”[16] Godswil typically spoke in Igbo proverbs when he wanted to convince someone else to follow along with an idea of his. In the scene after he convinces Adaeze to go along with his plan, the two of them approach Adaeze’s father, Ernest, with the idea to merge Lionheart with a competitor (not Igwe Pascale) in order to save the business from financial ruin. Godswil reassures his brother, Ernest, that he and Adaeze will ensure that the deal goes through with the proverb, “Throw the bone to us dogs and leave us to fight the spirits.” Interjecting Igbo phrases into English conversations and English phrases into Igbo conversations is typical in Igbo culture because there are sayings that can be expressed better in one language than the other. As Tsika (2019) writes in reaction to the film’s disqualification from the Best International Feature Film category, “the script’s proverbs and similes belong to an African vernacular tradition that has little to do with what is typically spoken in Hollywood cinema,” and that, “English, even in its “purest” form, has not severed any Nollywood film from the Nigerian experience.”

Lionheart is full of cultural cues that as a Nigerian, I can easily identify as “distinctly Nigerian,” and in many instances “specifically Igbo” — such as handshakes and clothing — that members of the Academy may not be able to decipher. One example is the significance of music. The first instance of background music in Lionheart is a song that is popular in Igboland. This song plays in the background as Adaeze’s family comes together for a formal dinner. The song is called “Onuigbo” by Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe and it is from his 2006 album, “Kedu America.” [17] This song is an appropriate choice since it has become a mainstay in Igbo gatherings since it was first released. More pointedly, the title “Kedu America” translates to “Hello America.” This, to me, conveys a deeper symbolism on the part of the filmmaker, Genevieve Nnaji, to position the film as an introduction of Nigeria to America.

The significance of this symbolism extends beyond this one scene when you consider the fact that Lionheart is Netflix’s first Nigerian Original film. Netflix has become a powerful distribution channel for delivering Nigerian films to viewers across the globe. Both Joy and The Wedding Party are also available to view on the streaming platform. As Tinubu (2019) points out, “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 onto streaming platforms like YouTube and Netflix.”An eagerness to explore business models that allow for mass distribution has always set Nigerian films, in particular, apart from other African filmmaking communities. Akinola (2013) explains, “Many observers and cinema theorists have traced the birth of Nollywood in its current home video mode of film production, as opposed to the cinema approach of the 1960s and 1970s, to the late 1980s when the production of celluloid films became very expensive due to harsh economic conditions in the country (19).”

In addition to a preference for wide-distribution whether via home video, YouTube, or streaming services like Netflix[18], Nigerian filmmakers and film marketers also understood that shifting from native dialects to English would allow their projects to be seen more widely in and outside of Nigeria. Haynes (2016) explains, “the adoption of English as the medium of films shifts their horizons away from cultural depth and particularism and toward the multiethnic nation. That move in turn is crucial in allowing Nollywood films to travel throughout the African continent and diaspora (60).” Furthermore, “film marketers saw that English films sold better than Igbo ones (60).”

In consideration of the “unprecedented rise of Nollywood in the past two decades,” Akinola (2013) asks, “In what ways can Nollywood contribute to creating a new national identity for Nigeria that goes beyond the current narratives of a country where poverty and ethnoreligious conflicts predominate (13)?” To address this question as it relates to Lionheart it is important to first acknowledge the positionality of the film’s director, Genevieve Nnaji. This is because as Chalfen (1992) highlights, “Image makers are people embedded in personal and public histories and in particular socio-cultural contexts.” Lionheart is the directorial debut of Nollywood star Genevieve Nnaji who also stars as the film’s lead character. She is widely considered to be a trailblazer in African cinema due to her long career which started when she worked as a child star in Nigerian soap operas and commercials before moving into the film where she has worked as an actor, producer, and now a director. Nanji has been a promoter of Nigerian nationalism and a critic of famous Nigerians who voluntarily emigrate. For instance, in a 2011 interview with CNN, Nnaji shared, “I never diss my own country (Tsika 2015, 62).”

Her allegiance to Nigeria is represented well through the theme of national unity in Lionheart. It is evident that Nnaji’s aim is to contribute to the remaking of a Nigerian national identity that promotes peace, progress, and multiculturalism. In response to the Academy’s decision to disqualify her film, Nnaji tweeted that Lionheart, “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.” The movie itself aligns with Akinola's (2013) desire for Nigerian filmmakers to craft new success stories that, “can be used to create an identity for Nigeria as a country where Muslims and Christians cooperate and live together in peace and harmony (23).” The film ends with Lionheart Transport merging with a different competitor, Alhaji[19] Danladi Maikano, to alleviate the company’s financial problems. Alhaji Danladi Maikano’s s company is based in Kano located in NorthWest Nigeria.[20] This is important to note because the majority of the Lionheart is set in Enugu which is in the SouthEast region of the country. The depiction of a company from the SouthEast where it is primarily Igbo and Christian merging with a company with the NorthWest where it is primarily Hausa and Muslim is symbolic of the two religious and geographical divisions within Nigeria which is a major way the film aims to represent a unified Nigeria in its submission to the Academy Awards. Additionally, the bubbling romantic interest between Adaeze and Hamza Maikano, Alhaji’s son, at the end of the movie also represents this union of South and North.

CONCLUSION

What makes a film reflective of a culture? This is an important question to consider. Peterson (2011) explains, “linguistic representations are one way in which audiences can judge authenticity, positionality, and sensitivity to those portrayed on-screen.” But, whose judgment of authenticity is the more accurate one? This is the tension evoked by the Academy’s decision to disqualify both Lionheart and Joy. The use of a local dialect in films can be a legitimizing aspect of representation for some audiences, but Nigeria’s position as a former British colony as well as its position as home to hundreds of indigenous dialects complicates the Academy’s short-sighted association of the use or non-use of the English language serving as the sole indicator of a film’s cultural authenticity. Lionheart director Genevieve Nnaji sums this up well in a Tweet to the Academy, “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.” After all, as Ahmad (2016) writes, “African life, in general, has already incorporated so many features of modern Western international life that English is only one of them (353).” English is no longer the property of the United States or Great Britain. I am in agreement with Appadurai (1990) who wrote in Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy, “The United States is no longer the puppeteer of a world system of images.” Furthermore, the weaponization of words like “English,” “foreign,” and “international” only serves as a ghettoizing function that mirrors President Trump’s rhetorical separation of “desirable” countries from “shithole” countries. This limits Nigerian filmmakers, or filmmakers interested in telling stories about Nigerians, from competing among the “best” films in the world. The goal of this essay was to legitimize the usage of English in both Lionheart and Joy as one of the ways that the filmmakers represented “authentic” Nigerian culture — both “home” and “abroad” — to a global audience. I maintain that to remove either film from the Best International Feature Film category on the basis of language alone ignores Nigeria’s colonial history and in itself serves as a form of linguistic imperialism on the part of the Academy. This is why I want to make a call to the Academy to remove language requirements from the submission guidelines as a whole and allow filmmakers to submit works in the language or language hybrids of their choice to demonstrate the organization’s commitment to “representing the best of an international art form.”

[1] 57 out of a total of 68 winners.

[2] To meet the Academy’s requirement for the “Best International Feature Film” category the dialogue of a film submission has to be primarily in a language other than English.

[3] The Farewell tells the story of a family laboring to keep their matriarch’s terminal cancer diagnosis a secret. Awkwafina, the film’s lead actress, is predicted (at the time of this writing) to become the first Asian-American woman ever nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award.

[4] More effort will be dedicated to discussing Lionheart than Joy since the film has been more central to the recent public conversations about the Best International Feature Film category.

[5] Living in Bondage tells the story of a man who signs a pact with the devil to get rich and portrays the practices of witchdoctors and the desperations of their clients.

[6] The number of ethnic groups in Nigeria is estimated to range from over 250 to 500 ethnicities (the numbers vary by resource), but Igbos, Yoruba, and Hausa are the largest groups and are called the “big three” even though they amount to approximately half of the Nigerian population (Haynes 2016, xxiii).

[7] Hausas primarily reside in Northern Nigeria.

[8] The Academy measured that only 33% of the 101-minute film uses non-English dialogue which falls short of the organization’s language requirement.

[9] Her name “Adaeze” is significant because in Igbo it means “king’s daughter” or “princess” and is typically a name given to a family’s first daughter. For example, my parents call me “Adaeze” or “Ada” as recognition of my position as the first daughter. In fact, I was almost named “Adaeze” instead of “Anuli.” Coincidently, “Anuli” means “Joy” or “daughter who brings happiness” which also connects me to the name of the other film I have been discussing, Joy.

[10] Her father, Earnest, founder of Lionheart Transport, suffers from a heart attack within the first ten minutes of the film.

[11] Subtitles are used when characters speak in Igbo.

[12] The film’s 95-minute running time contains only 11 minutes and 35 seconds of non-English dialogue.

[13] “Igwe” is a title of respect and honor in Igboland, often given to businessmen and politicians. Calling a man “Igwe” is an acknowledgment of his power or dominance. This specific tile isn’t traditionally given to women.

[14] This is approximately $8.25M US dollars.

[15] The iroko tree is a plant common in Nigeria and within African culture, believed to be inhabited by a spirit referred to as the “iroko-man” who was believed to have been cast into the tree as punishment. The spirit is believed to possess the power to kill anybody or an individual who tries to cut it.

[16] This was said in Igbo dialect with subtitles on-screen in English as were each instance when Godswil employed a proverb.

[17] My mother jokes that this album is my “bedtime story” because I heard it a lot growing up and still play it often today. I almost called this essay, “Kedu America” in recognition of the song’s influence in Igbo culture and in my personal life.

[18] There are also dedicated Nigerian streaming platforms like IrokoTV which describes itself as “the world’s largest platform for Nollywood movies and TV series.”

[19] “Alhaji” is an honorific title for a man who is Muslim and has completed a religious journey to Mecca.

[20] Kano is the second-largest city in Nigeria after Lagos. The Hausa, who are primarily Muslim, make up the largest proportion of residents in Kano.