Nigeria’s Oscar Hopes Are Dashed Over English Dialogue in ‘Lionheart’

Under academy rules, international entries must predominantly be in a non-English language. It’s not the first movie to be disqualified for this reason.


Nigeria’s first submission for the Oscar for best international film has been disqualified because the movie was predominantly shot in Nigeria’s official language — English.

Directed by and starring Genevieve Nnaji, the film, “Lionheart,” is on Netflix, and was also the streaming service’s first original Nigerian film.

Earlier this year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which doles out the prizes, renamed its global category “international feature film,” after deciding that the former name, “foreign language,” was “outdated.” But the rules remained unchanged. Eligible films had to hail from outside the United States and have “a predominantly non-English dialogue track.” For example, Britain’s entry this year is “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” written and directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor; it’s in the Bantu language Chichewa and English.

“Lionheart,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018, tells the story of a woman, played by Nnaji, who struggles to assume control of her family’s transportation company. According to the academy, fewer than a dozen minutes of the dialogue are in a language other than English.

While the film could still qualify for other Oscar categories, its most viable shot would have been for international feature. News of the disqualification was met with dismay by, among others, the filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who, noting on Twitter that English was Nigeria’s official language, asked the academy, “Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?”

Nnaji, one of the biggest stars in Nollywood, the large Nigerian film industry, sounded her frustration, too.

“This movie represents the way we speak as Nigerians,” Nnaji wrote in one tweet. She added, in another, “We did not choose who colonized us. As ever, this film and many like it, is proudly Nigerian.”

“Lionheart” is not the first film from another country to have its Oscar dreams dashed for having what the academy deemed too much English. The 2015 Afghanistan entry “Utopia” and the 2007 Israeli film “The Band’s Visit” were both likewise declared ineligible.

There are 92 films eligible for international feature. Early favorites are Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” from South Korea, and “Pain and Glory,” by Pedro Almodóvar, from Spain. The shortlist will be released in mid-December; the Oscar nominations will be announced Jan. 13, and the ceremony is set for Feb. 9.

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