Nollywood Oscar entry ‘Lionheart’ and Englishness: Is Motion picture academy a new colonial master?

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Englishness as often a response to different national identities within Britain such as Scottishness, Irishness, Welshness and Cornishness even as Nigeria’s first-ever submission for best international feature Oscar consideration, the comedy “Lionheart,” has been disqualified by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for having too much dialogue in English.

Directed by and starring Genevieve Nnaji — who has been called the Julia Roberts of Nigeria — “Lionheart” has earned strong reviews. But the film, which is currently streaming on Netflix, is mostly in English, running afoul of an academy rule that entries in the freshly renamed international feature film category must have “a predominantly non-English dialogue track.” All but roughly 11 minutes of the 95-minute film — about a woman trying to keep her father’s company afloat in a male-dominated world — are in English.

“Lionheart” was one of 10 African films officially submitted for Oscar consideration this year, a record for the continent. With the disqualification, the number of films in contention for the award has dropped from 93 to 92. The film is still eligible to be considered in other Oscar categories.

The academy’s decision, which was communicated via email to Oscar voters, was first reported by The Wrap.

This isn’t the first time the academy has disqualified a foreign film from consideration for having too much English dialogue; in recent years, the 2015 Afghan film “Utopia” and the 2007 Israeli movie “The Band’s Visit” were disqualified for the same reason.

Still, the disqualification of “Lionheart” — which, ironically, follows the academy’s decision earlier this year to change the name of the category from best foreign-language film to best international feature film — struck a sour note with at least one high-powered Hollywood figure. Director Ava DuVernay tweeted her dismay, noting that English is the official language of Nigeria.

To @TheAcademy, You disqualified Nigeria’s first-ever submission for Best International Feature because its in English. But English is the official language of Nigeria. Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language? https://t.co/X3EGb01tPF
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) November 4, 2019

For her part, Nnaji tweeted in response to the academy’s decision that her movie “represents the way we speak as Nigerians. This includes English, which acts as a bridge between the 500+ languages spoken in our country. … We did not choose who colonized us. As ever, this film and many like it, is proudly Nigerian.”

1/1 1/2 Thank you so much @ava❤️.
I am the director of Lionheart. 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. @TheAcademy https://t.co/LMfWDDNV3e
— Genevieve Nnaji MFR (@GenevieveNnaji1) November 4, 2019

2/2 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. @TheAcademy https://t.co/LMfWDDNV3e
— Genevieve Nnaji MFR (@GenevieveNnaji1) November 4, 2019

In fact, English is the official language of a number of African countries, including Botswana, Ghana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. (One country where English is not the official language, by the way, is the United States of America, which has no official language.)

To many longtime Oscar watchers, the “Lionheart” decision — which comes in the midst of an ongoing push by the academy in recent years to bring in more members from overseas — may further highlight what some already see as overly arbitrary and sometimes perplexing rules governing eligibility in the international category.

Until a rule change in 2006, for example, films had to be in the official language of the country that submitted them, a requirement that barred the 2004 Italian movie “Private” from consideration because it was mainly in Arabic and Hebrew. Conversely, non-English-language films “Apocalypto” and “Letters From Iwo Jima” were ineligible to compete in the foreign-language category because they were produced in America, despite the fact that both films were nominated for Golden Globes for best foreign-language film.

And if all that is not confusing enough, despite the academy’s ostensible language requirement, in 1983 a completely dialogue-free film, the Algerian dance film “Le Bal,” earned a nomination in the foreign-language film category.

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Godwin Okafor is a Financial Journalist, Internet Social Entrepreneur and Founder of Naija247news Media Limited. He has over 16 years experience in financial journalism. His experience cuts across traditional and digital media. He started his journalism career at Business Day, Nigeria and founded Naija247news Media in 2010. Godwin holds a Bachelors degree in Industrial Relations and Personnel Management from the Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos. He is an alumni of Lagos Business School and a Fellow of the University of Pennsylvania (Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists). Over the years, he has won a number of journalism awards. Godwin is the chairman of Emmerich Resources Limited, the publisher of Naija247news.

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