Nigeria's Oscar Entry 'Lionheart' Disqualified Over Predominantly English Dialogue

Genevieve Nnaji stars and directs in the Netflix-backed Lionheart

The Academy has disqualified Nigeria's "Lionheart" from the Oscar race in the Best International Feature Film category, lessening the number of films competing from what had been a record 93 entries. The film was disqualified based on language which has roused debates on poor award management historic insensitivity.

Nigeria's first-ever submission for Best International Feature Oscar category, 'Lionheart' was disqualified by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS also known as the Academy) for containing too much English dialogue.

The film about a woman trying to keep her father's company afloat in a male-dominated world only has roughly 11 minutes of the 95-minute film in native Igbo while the rest of the film is in the country's National language, English.

The disqualification has caused immense backlash with many accusing the Academy of insensitivity in penalizing the film for using a language that is not of choice but of oppression. The Academy rules may be clear cut, but they did not fully consider the historical gravity of the disqualification.

Film lead and acclaimed actress Genevieve Nnaji said 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, "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."

The penalties of Colonialism or poor award management?

When the AMPAS changed the name of the 'Best Foreign Language Film' category earlier this year to the 'Best International Feature Film' category, it did so without fleshing out what this truly meant. This inadvertently set up an expectation that language is no longer a factor in determining eligibility for the category.

However, this is not the reality as although the category name was changed the rules remained the same- the Academy defines an international feature film as one "produced outside the United States with a predominantly non-English dialogue track."

"In April 2019, we announced that the name of the foreign language film category changed to international feature film," the academy said in a statement. "We also confirmed that the rules for the category would not change. The intent of the award remains the same -- to recognize accomplishment in films created outside of the United States in languages other than English."

Given the rule implication 'Lionheart' which primarily in English was simply not eligible for the category and should not have made the list of qualifying films in the first place or the Academy's screening schedule.

It may be difficult to vet submissions from 93 different countries, but in their negligence the Academy appears to be penalizing the film for using its official language; a symbol of its colonial past like many other African countries.

According to the Academy the film can contend for a different category, "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." It added in its statement.

All in the name

Diane Weyermann, the co-chair of the International Feature Film Award Executive Committee, told TheWrap that the category name was changed because "there are now political connotations to the word foreign. These filmmakers are not foreigners -- these are our peers in the international film community."

Her co-chair, Larry Karaszewski, added that the tipping point during Alfonso Cuarón Oscar acceptance speech for the foreign-language film "Roma" in February where he talked about how he'd grown up loving foreign-language films ... like "Jaws," "Citizen Kane" and "The Godfather."

"It was so obvious," Karaszewski said. "I think Diane and I looked at each other and said, 'You know, we're supposed to be in charge here. We could actually do something about this.'"

The AMPAS could have taken a leaf from the British Academy Film Awards, who have what might be the most accurate category title, 'Best Film Not in the English Language.'

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