Nigeria’s Oscars hopes are over before they began. On Monday, the country’s first entry into the Academy Awards, Genevieve Nnaji’s Lionheart, was disqualified from competing in the newly renamed category of Best International Feature Film, formerly known as the Best Foreign Language Film. The film’s mostly English dialogue did not meet the section’s criteria because according to the rules set by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, submitted films need to mostly be in a language other than English to qualify.
Social media reacted to the news with outrage. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted in the film’s defense, noting that English was the official language of Nigeria. The film’s director, Genevieve Nnaji, posted on Twitter, “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.” She added in a following tweet, “We did not choose who colonized us.” Others wondered why Lionheart was even submitted in the first place since the non-English language requirement is not a new rule. According to the BBC, of the movie’s 95-minute runtime, only 11 minutes are in the Igbo language.
The contentious discussion brought renewed attention to the category’s new title as it obscures one of its biggest qualifying requirements: language. When announced in April, the move away from Best Foreign Language Film was done because the old name came across as “outdated within the global filmmaking community”. But under the auspices of International Feature Film, a movie like Lionheart should be able to compete, but then so could movies from English speaking countries such as Ireland, England, Australia, and so on, even while these films are not as underrepresented in US theaters as those from Nollywood, Nigeria’s entertainment capital. The category is intended to shine a spotlight on non-US films in a non-English language that may not have had access to US distribution channels or marketing budgets. Historically, the category has been dominated by films from Western European countries, but that has shifted over time. Last year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma finally won the category’s top prize for Mexico.
In the wake of the recent controversy, it is likely that the Academy may develop a new process to better assess potential entries or revisit the qualifying rule about language. It’s unfortunate that the timing of its disqualification comes just as preliminary screenings of submitted films begin this week, almost a full month after the Academy announced a then-record number of entries from 93 countries on October 7.
If you would like to support Nnaji, whatever the Oscars say, you can stream Lionheart on Netflix.