Academy Awards Disqualify Nigerian Film ‘Lionheart’ For Too Much English

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Nov 5, 2019

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Image Credit: "Lionheart" (2018) (Lionheart Production Company / The Entertainment Network)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — best known as ‘the Academy’ everyone thanks on-stage at the Oscars — has disqualified Nigeria’s first-ever entry in the International Feature Film category because the film has too much English dialogue, according to Al Jazeera.

The film, Lionheart, has little more than 83 minutes of English dialogue and almost 12 minutes of Igbo dialogue, according to Hollywood Reporter. English is the official language of Nigeria, established by British colonizers who ruled the country for nearly 60 years, and Igbo, one of several widely spoken languages within the country. The film was directed by and features Genevieve Nnaji, one of Nollywood’s — as the Nigerian film industry is known — biggest stars. In it, Nnaji portrays a woman who has assumed leadership of her father’s company and struggles to navigate a male-dominated business environment. It premiered in 2018 at the Toronto Film Festival before being acquired by Netflix for distribution, according to The Wrap.

The Best International Feature Film has replaced the earlier category, Best Foreign Language Film, at the 2020 Oscars — a renaming that hints at a broadened worldview, perhaps not dictated by language. But the rules belie any evolution beyond exoticism: “an international film is defined as a feature-length motion picture (defined as over 40 minutes) produced outside the United States of America with a predominantly non-English dialogue track.”


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It seems former colonies, who had the English language imposed into their culture via force and brainwashing, were just cut a rough deal — but not the U.S., of course. Even if it is a former British colony, as a mostly-white country, it is the natural heir to such a ‘civilized’ language, unlike the black and brown countries to whom it now exports its language in a new kind of cultural colonization that has made English the language of the world, while at the same time devaluing non-Western English speakers.

English-language films made outside of the U.S., Canada or the U.K. just aren’t Western enough to be included in the Oscars’ standard categories on their own merit, and not exotic enough to be recognized in a token acknowledgment of the film industries that exist in other parts of the world. It’s hardly the first time colonized peoples have felt neither one nor the other. And maybe that’s the point.

India’s entry for the 2020 Oscars, Gully Boy, has garnered much acclaim for its portrayal of a rapper who grew up in the slums of Mumbai and struggled to achieve fame on his own terms. While the race for Best International Feature Film is wide open — 92 entries, even after Lionheart‘s rejection — its mostly Hindi dialogue should keep it in play even as its plot gives it an edge. After all, the Oscars love stories of slums in foreign lands.

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Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor and has been living and writing in Mumbai since 2010. She is passionate about women’s rights, everyone’s health, and caffeine.

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