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Genevieve’s Lionheart movie award disqualification: Did the Oscars break some laws?

Nigeria’s first-ever submission for best international feature Oscar consideration, “Lionheart” has been disqualified by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences based on a misguided and discriminatory view that the movie directed by ace Nollywood actress, Genevieve Nnaji, had “too much English dialogue”.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Lionheart, one of 10 African films that were submitted for Oscar consideration this year, was deemed to have ran afoul of the academy rule which states that an International feature film category must have “a predominantly non-English dialogue track.”

Regardless, that move may not only be unfair – but also illegal – as unlawful discrimination against an artistic product (movie) set partly in English language by African artists from a country where English has been a lingua franca since 1960: more than half a century ago.

In an apparent, even if unwitting effort to normalise the discrimination, the Los Angeles Times wrote that, “this isn’t the first time the academy has disqualified a foreign film from consideration for having too much English dialogue; in recent years, the 2015 Afghan film, Utopia, and the 2007 Israeli movie, The Band’s Visit, were disqualified for the same reason.”

Sonia Rao of the Washington Post was equally silent as to the legality of the Oscars call. “Lionheart,” the directorial debut of starring actress Genevieve Nnaji, follows a woman as she navigates a male-dominated industry to save her ailing father’s business. The film’s characters speak in Igbo, a language spoken in southern Nigeria, for a small portion of the 95-minute run time, but not long enough to meet the category’s requirement that each entry feature a “predominantly non-English dialogue track.”

However, unlike Nigeria, the lingua franca or national language of Afghanistan and Israel aren’t English. Indeed, Afghanistan despite being a multilingual country like Nigeria asserts two indigenous languages – Pashto and Dari – as their lingua franca. For Israel, Hebrew is historically and officially recognised as the national language.

Interestingly, under the same Oscar rules, the Algerian film Papicha, which is a favourite in the category, features a good deal of French – the language Algeria inherited from its erstwhile colonisers – France. As noted by a writer for the TheGuardian, Afua Hirsch, “the message seems to be that as long as your imperial power spoke what Americans regard as a “foreign” language – in other words, anything but English – you can speak it and remain authentic. But if you share an imperial past with the US to the extent that English is your nation’s lingua franca as a result, then it is somehow less authentic to speak it.”

Intriguingly, while the commentaries in the WashingtonPost and TheGuardian strove to set up a negative narrative against the Oscars based on the hackneyed themes of racism and colonialism, none of them went far enough to recognise the elephant in the room: the legality of the move. That is, whether the Oscars’ parent body may be in legal jeopardy (something that, borrowing their preferred race and colonial construct, would have been a given, perhaps, if the same treatment was meted out to someone who was resident in the US or UK or a work connected closely with both countries).

In a tweet on her official Twitter handle, Genevieve rightly noted: “To the academy (Oscar), You disqualified Nigeria’s first-ever submission for Best International Feature because it’s in English. But English is Nigeria’s official language. Are you barring this country from ever competing for an Oscar in its official language?”

Further, in her response to one Ava Duvernay’s tweet, Genevieve Nnaji said: “I am the director of Lionheart. 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 one Nigeria… “It’s no different to how French connects communities in former French colonies. We did not choose who colonised us. As ever, this film and many like it, is proudly Nigerian.”

More importantly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which is behind the Oscars is a Beverly Hills, California, United States based legal entity subject to a slew of federal anti-discrimination laws. There is the State of California’s non-discrimination regime, specifically under the “Language Discrimination” framework which outlaws discrimination based on language considerations. Furthermore, under the Immigration-Based Discrimination rules, it is unlawful to discriminate against any person(s) based on their national origin or historical peculiarities associated therewith.

While jurisdictional hurdles can be expected, there can be little doubt that the brand of the Oscars, under close legal scrutiny, may be the one with more to lose if legal challenge is taken up as a push-back against its dismissive treatment of the hearts and minds behind the LionHeart movie.

It would be interesting to see what simple letter to the parent body of the Oscars by a US based Attorney would excite. Such patronising dismissal of artistic works due to the origin of its producers is not one condoned under California and US laws and so the producers of the Lionheart may have a remarkable opportunity to right some wrongs for past and future African movie makers. This may be a case someone may be happy to settle out of court – while reframing the rule to prevent similar treatment are meted to future content producers from countries who had adopted the language for their erstwhile colonisers.

As astutely captured by another Twitter user, Britain Danielle, “Something about this doesn’t seem fair. The film was disqualified because it’s mostly in English. Meanwhile, the official language of Nigeria is…English.”

Samuel Eleanya

Samuel Eleanya is a lawyer and a managing partner at Lawnigeria.com

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