By Sasha Charlemagne
On Nov. 4, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences officially disqualified the Nigerian film “Lionheart” from 2020 Oscar consideration. The film, Nigeria’s first-ever entry, was disqualified from the International Feature category due to most of its dialogue being in English, Nigeria’s official language. The Academy’s ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ category was recently renamed ‘Best International Feature Film’ and many have argued that this decision to make such a change becomes irrelevant if the rules surrounding entry to the category have remained entirely the same. What purpose does making this distinction serve if there is no space to be allowed for foreign films that utilize English as its primary language?
This question becomes far more complex when we are forced to remember that the source behind the usage of English as the primary language in many foreign nations is the centuries of English colonization these nations were, and still are, subjected to. English has been a language commonly spoken in Nigeria since the late 1800s and has been recognized as the nation’s official language, used to connect the more than five hundred languages spoken.
By disallowing the usage of English language in films being considered from foreign nations, we immediately eliminate the great majority of films being produced in nearly two dozen African countries where English is a primary mode of communication. Under this criterion, we also are forced to overlook films from previously colonized Caribbean islands like Jamaica and Barbados. Internal autonomy was not granted to many of these Caribbean nations until fairly recent history, with St. Kitts and Antigua becoming independent nations as recently as 1983 and 1981 respectively after generations of British colonization.
If the purpose of the Academy choosing to recognize foreign films is to provide representation for multicultural viewpoints and allow for more intersectional discussion within film, omitting entries based on this criterion only serves as a detriment to their cause.
The 2019 Oscars set a record for the highest number of individual Black winners in the ninety-one-year history of the awards show with seven Black winners in six categories. Marvel’s “Black Panther” brought home three of these awards with historic wins for costume designer Ruth Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler, both becoming the first Black woman to win in their respective categories. With a film that relies so heavily on a futuristic interpretation of African aesthetics, culture and tradition being so noticeably honored by the Academy, it causes one to question how we can celebrate creative voices that are actually coming out of African nations if they are not being considered “foreign” enough.