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Motion picture academy disqualifies Nigerian Oscar entry ‘Lionheart’ for having too much English dialogue

Genevieve Nnaji in a scene from “Lionheart.” Credit: Netflix
Genevieve Nnaji in the Nigerian film “Lionheart.”
(Netflix)

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.

“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.”

“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.

In the early days of Nigerian cinema, directors and actors wandered cities and tribal lands shooting movies straight to VHS tapes that were sold in kiosks and bartered in villages.
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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; 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” 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.

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.”

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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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