UPDATED: Amid biting criticism of the Academy’s decision to disqualify Genevieve Nnaji’s “Lionheart” from the Oscar race for best international feature film, the Academy has released a statement citing “Lionheart’s” mere 11 minutes of non-English dialogue as grounds for disqualification.
“In April 2019, we announced that the name of the Foreign Language Film category changed to International Feature Film. 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,” the statement reads.
“As this year’s submitted films were evaluated, we discovered that ‘Lionheart’ includes only 11 minutes of non-English dialogue, which makes it ineligible for this award category.”
Nigeria’s selection committee had called the disqualification “an eye-opener” and said Tuesday it would urge local filmmakers to take care to follow Academy guidelines in the future.
The committee acknowledged that “Lionheart” — Nigeria’s first-ever submission for Oscar contention — departed from the requirement that contenders feature “a predominantly non-English dialogue track.” The 95-minute comedy is mostly in English, with a short section in the Igbo language.
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However, English is Nigeria’s official language, the result of decades of British colonialism before the country gained independence in 1960. Numerous indigenous tongues are also spoken in Nigeria, including Igbo and Yoruba.
Despite the selection committee’s conciliatory statement, the disqualification of “Lionheart” sparked a social media backlash. Director Ava DuVernay lent her support to the film’s entry in the Oscar race, in a category that, ironically, has been newly rechristened as “international feature film” instead of “foreign-language film.”
“Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?” DuVernay asked the Academy in a tweet.
Variety has reached out to the Academy for comment.
Director Nnaji, one of Africa’s most recognized and feted screen stars, thanked DuVernay for her support, saying that the film “represents the way we speak as Nigerians.” She described English as “a bridge between the 500+ languages spoken in our country,” adding pointedly: “We did not choose who colonized us.”
Nnaji rose through the ranks of Nigeria’s prolific Nollywood film industry to become what Oprah Winfrey once dubbed the “Julia Roberts of Africa.” Her directorial debut was one of a record 10 African films submitted to the Academy this year for Oscar consideration. “Lionheart,” in which Nnaji also stars, had its world premiere at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival and is currently available on Netflix.
The Nigerian Oscar selection committee also spoke of the greater accessibility of English for local audiences. “The budding Nigerian film industry is often faced with producing films with wide reach which often makes the recording dialogue predominantly English with non-English infusions in some cases,” the committee said in its statement.
The committee called the Academy’s decision “an eye-opener and step forward into growing a better industry.” It said it would urge Nigerian filmmakers “to shoot with the intention of non-English recording dialogue as a key qualifying parameter to represent the country in the [contest for the] most prestigious award.”
Other commenters lambasted the Academy’s decision, although some acknowledged that rules are rules.