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Nigerian Film, 'Lionheart,' Disqualified From Oscar Contention


Nigeria has submitted its first-ever Oscar entry, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences says the film does not qualify for the international category. And that is sparking criticism. Here's NPR's Mandalit del Barco.


MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The Nigerian movie, "Lionheart," stars Genevieve Nnaji as a young woman who takes over her father's transportation business when he falls ill.


GENEVIEVE NNAJI: (As Adaeze) They're depending on me, and I feel like a failure.

DEL BARCO: "Lionheart" is also her directorial debut. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year and is now on Netflix.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Igbo).

DEL BARCO: Just 11 minutes of dialogue are spoken in the language Igbo. The rest is in Nigeria's official language, English. The academy says that's why "Lionheart" is ineligible for the prize that, from 1956 until this year, was known as foreign language film. On Twitter, Nnaji wrote, this movie represents the way we speak as Nigerians. She added, this includes English, which acts as a bridge between the 500-plus languages spoken in our country. She alluded to Nigeria having been colonized by Britain. Director Ava DuVernay and others also criticized the film's disqualification. Scott Feinberg is The Hollywood Reporter's awards columnist.

SCOTT FEINBERG: I feel sorry for Nigeria. It's the first time that they've ever submitted a film for this category at the Oscars and, you know, it's by all accounts a very good film.

DEL BARCO: Feinberg is sympathetic, but he says the non-English rules remain, even if the category's name changed. A statement from the academy said the intent of the award is unchanged, to recognize the accomplishments and films created outside of the U.S. in languages other than English. Saying the term foreign was outdated, the academy renamed the category last April, after director Alfonso Cuaron's Oscar acceptance speech for "Roma."


ALFONSO CUARON: I grew up watching foreign language films and learning so much from them and being inspired. Films like the "Citizen Kane," "Jaws..."


CUARON: "...Rashomon," "The Godfather" and "Breathless."

FEINBERG: In response to Alfonso Cuaron saying that foreign language is all in the eye of the beholder, they've renamed it best international feature film, but they didn't change the mission or the criteria. And we can debate whether or not they should. But this is a rule that's been on the books for more than a half-century.

DEL BARCO: Feinberg says "Lionheart" could qualify in other categories, though it would be tough. He suggests the academy could have been more explicit with its renamed category. The British Academy awards the, quote, "best film not in the English language." Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.