On November 4, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of the United States, or the Oscars, disqualified the first film presented by Nigeria in the category of Best International Feature Film. “Lionheart” is a 2018 movie now available on Netflix, it was rated “unfit to compete” because it is “mostly in English,” reports The Wrap online media platform.
In Nigeria, more than 500 languages are spoken. The country is a British ex-colony where the national language is English. The “Lionheart” characters speak a unique English style from Nigeria. This disqualification has initiated a conversation about whether Nigerian English can be considered a language other than British or American English.
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v45GprEyM7U (/ embed)
“Lionheart”, directed by Genevieve Nnaji, is currently broadcast on Netflix. In the film, the “ultra-capable woman” Adaeze (Nnaji) struggles to keep her father's transport company afloat in a “machismo-driven industry,” writes a review from LA Times. “In Adaeze's hands, Nnaji quickly becomes a global hero of the 21st century, an exasperated but honest fighter in the peculiar history of literal patriarchy while also respecting a legacy she would like to continue.”
In response to the disqualification, Nnaji tweeted:
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
At the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, they have disqualified the first film that Nigeria presented for Best International Film because it is in English. But English is the official language of Nigeria. Are you forever preventing this country from competing for an Oscar in its official language?
Thank you very much, (to the actress) Ava DuVernay.
I am the director of Lionheart. This movie represents the way we speak Nigerians. This includes English, which acts as a bridge between the more than 500 languages spoken in our country, which makes us a Nigeria.
‘Right movie, wrong competition’
The Academy generated the basis for the confusion when it changed the category from Best Non-English Language Film to Best International Film. This “confused the waters” and gave the false impression that “language is no longer a factor in determining suitability for the category,” according to The Wrap.
However, the rules have not changed and the emphasis on foreign language persists.
The award for Best International Film is awarded to a film produced outside the United States with predominant use of non-English dialogue, a rule that the Oscar selection committee in Nigeria has admitted not having observed when they presented the film for the award.
The resulting disqualification of the film is a sad reflection of the ineptitude of Nollywood (Nigeria's film industry) and its “bad attention to detail.” “Lionheart” is a “right movie” that was nominated in a “wrong competition,” the BBC wrote.
Is Nigeria's English a foreign language?
Nigerian linguist and poet Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún led the conversation about language that occurred after the disqualification of “Lionheart”. Túbọ̀sún maintains in African Arguments that Nigeria's English “is a Nigerian language” totally different from British and American variants:
Its phonology (we stress the third syllable (ad-mi-RAL-ty) rather than the first (AD-mi-ral-ty), for instance), syntax (we say 'let me be going' for 'I have to leave now ';' senior brother 'rather than' elder brother '; and' next tomorrow 'rather than' day after tomorrow ', etc.), and lexicon (words like' trafficate 'and' overfloat ', all distinctly Nigerian) already qualify it as almost a different language. Why else, for instance, would foreigners say ‘pardon?’, ‘Scuse me?’ And ‘say it again’ so many times when speaking to us?
For example, its phonology (we emphasize the third syllable (ad-mi-RAL-ty, admiralty) and not the first (AD-mi-ral-ty), the syntax (we say 'let me be going' instead of 'I have to leave now ';' senior brother 'instead of' elder brother '(older brother); and' next tomorrow 'instead of' day after tomorrow ', etc.), and lexicon (words like 'trafficate' and 'overfloat', clearly Nigerian) already make it almost a different language.If not, for example, why do foreigners say 'sorry' or 'excuse me'? Again 'so many times when they talk to us?
Túbọ̀sún points out the irony that Nigerians who want to enroll in American universities must take the TOEFL test (test of English as a foreign language), a test that measures the domain of “non-native speakers.” This is paradoxical because, as a British ex-colony, the official language of Nigeria is English.
Túbọ̀sún insists that, although Nigerian linguists have failed to “officially codify and recognize” Nigerian English, Nollywood's artistic brilliance has taken the lead.
Academician Kovie Biakolo expanded the conversation. He pointed out that Nollywood cannot afford to make films only in native Nigerian languages - for the simple and obvious reason: idiomatic diversity. With more than 500 languages, English is an official language that connects Nigerians living inside and outside the country:
In fact, contrary to popular belief, most Nigerian films are made with dialogues in one of the country's native tongues. While I couldn't obtain more recent statistics from the Nigerian National Film and Video Censors Board, according to 2011 data, 75 percent of all Nigerian productions are made in Nigerian languages. But the reasons English is used in Nigerian films (that are expected to be popular beyond its borders) are historical and practical: Nigeria was colonized by the British, and English is the country official language. Moreover, in a nation-state with hundreds of languages, the obvious rationale is that English will most likely reach the widest national audience and ensure a potential built-in, English-speaking audience abroad.
Moreover, unlike popular belief, most Nigerian films are made with dialogues in one of the country's native languages. Although I could not find more recent statistics from the National Board of Film and Video Reviewers of Nigeria, according to 2011 data, 75% of Nigerian productions are made in Nigerian languages. But the reasons why English is used in Nigerian films (which are expected to be popular beyond its borders) are historical and practical: Nigeria was colonized by the British and English is the official language of the country. In addition, it is a nation-state with hundreds of languages, the obvious reason is that English is likely to reach a larger national audience and guarantee a greater English-speaking audience inherent abroad.
Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe skillfully captures why language has the “power to shape” narratives:
Our ideas of beauty, of race, of civilization and so on are based on the narratives that were told of us by those with the power to shape and share those narratives, and they in turn have become the narratives that we tell ourselves of ourselves. Why would an Igbo child tell another that eating akpu (a popular food eaten in southeast Nigeria) is bush? Or that eating with your fingers is bush? Or that speaking Igbo is bush? Why would an Igbo man come on Twitter – as someone did recently – and say what a pity it is that one of our Igbo leaders has an Igbo accent. It is because over the years, we have allowed – not always willingly, I must add – we have allowed others to calibrate what is ‘bush’ and what is not, what is desirable and what is not.
Our ideas of beauty, race, civilization, among others, are based on the narratives told by those who have the power to shape and transmit those narratives, and in turn they have become the narratives we tell of ourselves. Why would an Igbo child tell another to eat akpu (popular food in southeastern Nigeria) is it rural? Or that eating fingers is rural? Or that speaking Igbo is rural? Why does an Igbo go to Twitter – as recently happened – and says it's a shame that an Igbo leader has an Igbo accent? It is because for years, we have allowed – not always at will, I must add – that others gauge what is “rural” and what is not, what is desirable and what is not.
We must thank the Oscars for this disqualification because they have started a conversation that goes beyond “Lionheart” about the value of language and address Nigerian narratives – in all their languages.
There have been no formal initiatives to designate Nigerian English as their own language category. However, this cultural debate about the style or linguistic aesthetics of Nigerian languages has taken time.
In the long run, “Lionheart” goes beyond the Oscars because it has caused the eyes of the world to rest on the inequality that some languages connote in a polyglot world and the dynamics of related power. That is why there are creative works like “Lionheart” – they use artistic elegance to start difficult conversations.