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Peres Owino Helps Give Voice to ‘African Queens’

Peres Owino Helps Give Voice to ‘African Queens’

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Jada Pinkett-Smith wanted to give her daughter Willow a legacy that was celebrated, authentic, and Black. She knew that some of their roots were shrouded in mystery, lost in the annals of the diaspora and chattel slavery. 

Together with production companies Nutopia and her own Westbrook, Pinkett-Smith decided to research the royal history of a place where royalty barely makes the list in terms of “facts.” African Queens: Njinga tells the story of Njinga, queen of modern day Angola. She was an educated and wise woman who was not afraid of a little controversy in doing what was right by her people. Pinkett-Smith enlisted the help of two African female writers to tell the story as authentically as possible: Nigerian born Nne Nne Iwuji and Kenyan native Peres Owino, an award winning writer and director. 

Owino is known for Bound: Africans vs. African-Americans, a timely documentary that shines light on the internal strife of those of African descent. Owino has a strong voice and an innate love for the historical African experience. I had a chance to Zoom with the writer about working on African Queens: Njinga and what she learned from the experience. 

After spending years wheeling and dealing in Hollywood as a Black woman, you were thrust into a project with another Black African female writer and to write about an African queen. What was that experience like? 

I loved doing this story because Nne Nne and I are both African. There were two things that happened, the first was humility — because I know who Njinga is and then to be called to tell the story of Njinga? There’s a humility, a ministry that just hits you in the chest like, “Oh my God, why me?” The next thing was the challenge of representing the ancestor. That was very important to us. 

What kind of resources did you use? 

We had amazing people who filled in the gaps, and we reached back into our own lives to the women that we know in order to figure out and fully understand what it means to be African — what it means to take up space. We took all of the information that came our way and used it to create the most authentic character we could. 

I like how you’re able to put in facts, but then you make it clear when you’re making educated guesses about certain elements. Tell us about deciding when to take artistic license. 

We wanted to dramatize elements of her life, and we also wanted to curate the talking heads. But then there are certain things that are layered in between, that you can decipher, from what you watched, and have the talking heads speak to that a bit more. We’d say something like, “It’s not blatantly being put in the books, but all of the actions that are happening are leading towards this finality.” There were lots of conversations so we were all on the same page about the story we were telling. 

I know the first time you saw the episodes all put together was at the special screening in London. What was it like to see your words come to life like that? 

I went through so many emotions! First when you walk in you see the cast outside and automatically wonder who is who? They say a film is written four times, and the last time is when it’s being edited. So now I was seeing how the pieces have fallen into place, what was moved. It was fascinating. It’s always very humbling. 

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Overall, I love being able to see these women celebrated. There are so many misconceptions about Africa, especially during the diaspora. Was there any piece of information you wanted to make sure came through? Something that was maybe different from the accepted norm? 

There is one thing from the books that I don’t want to give away because of future episodes, but I definitely learned new things. I feel pretty strongly about it because this field of study is not new to me, but what I loved about Linda [Heywood]’s book was that for the first time someone was talking about the psychological implications of what was going on. For me that hit really hard. 

That’s something I noted in my review. A lot of times with history we have people behaving badly — and not to say this justifies it — but there’s something that adds context when you explore the mental health issues many were struggling with but couldn’t put a name to. In the series there’s a king who is paranoid and clearly dealing with depression and bipolar disorder, but at the time he was just written off as a mad king.  

One of the things about history that as a writer I try so hard to maintain, is when writing about history, it’s important to put it in its time. It’s very easy to throw a 21st century lens with Monday morning quarterbacking; anybody could do that, right? But to put it in its time and look at them without judgment and try to understand what was going on at the time? What are the pressures that are going on at that time? What are the choices or the lack of choices that people were given at that time?

One of the things I came away with besides just understanding who Njinga was, was being grateful that it wasn’t me! Thank God, I wasn’t in that situation, in that position to make those choices. It’s fascinating, and one of the reasons I love this. I love the fact that Netflix and Nutopia and Jada specifically decided to start with Njinga because Njinga is literally the pivotal point where the story of the African Diaspora begins. It’s literally the beginning of our story. 

African Queens: Njinga is the first in a series. What other queens are you working on? 

I can’t give too much away, but Cleopatra is next! 

Ooh, I can’t wait! Tell us, is there any take away you want the audience to have after watching African Queens: Njinga?

I find that Njinga is really the story of humanity about what happens to people when you put too much pressure on them. What I would love for people to take away is let’s stop putting this sort of pressure on one another, right? We are all one people, and in order for us to survive we have to really come from a place of love as opposed to a place of greed. Because greed never has any positive outcomes. I think that’s a reason it’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins!

Wise words from a wise woman. Peres Owino can be found at her website. African Queens: Njinga is airing all four episodes now on Netflix. 

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