If seeing Viola Davis as General Nanisca in The Woman King piqued your curiosity about the fierce women who protected the Motherland, then African Queens: Njinga is the perfect next step. The docudrama is produced by Jada Pinkett Smith and narrated by her as well. There are four episodes, and each one interlaces drama and talking heads to tell the story of an unknown hero.
African Queens: Njinga was written by NneNne Iwuji and Peres Owino. Iwuji is a diplomat in Latin America and Africa. She’s also a studied filmmaker and novelist, working now on her debut work, Anika’s Daughter. Owino is an award-winning writer and director. She’s worked with the best in the business in bringing Black stories to life.
The talking heads include anthropologist Luke Pepera, University of Chicago assistant professor Mary Hicks, and more academics who support the on-screen narrative. Njinga’s story is full of twists and turns and is told in beautifully filmed vignettes that make the history lesson engaging and entertaining.
We open in 17th century Western Africa where we meet Njinga, who is a princess of Ndongo. She was a woman of language — speaking her native tongue and Portuguese — and quickly became a diplomat and trusted counsel to her father. While her father is battling nearby tribes and local enemies, the Portuguese are closing in. One of the first major expanding empires, the Portuguese are pilfering slaves to take to Brazil to work their overtaken valuable sugar plantations.
Njinga realizes the threat of the Portuguese and advocates that her father unite with other tribes to drive them out. There are nearby mercenaries that are starting to work with the Portuguese, and these distractions, along with turmoil within Njinga’s own community cause her complaints to fall on deaf ears. After tragedy strikes, she’s forced to put aside her feelings and use her cunning and political prowess to protect her people and save her nation.
Jada Pinkett Smith narrates all four parts and does so with a learned gravitas and soulful voice. She’s able to set the scene with warmth when it’s needed and with cool hardness in necessary moments. The project is her baby, and by creating a docudrama rather than a narrative feature, she eliminates the need for embellishment. When certain scenes are unclear, the episode shows you a version and then an academic speaks to the legitimacy of that possibility.
In order for a concept like this to work, you need to have a cast that is up to the challenge. Playing Njinga is Adesuwa Oni. She’s relatively new to acting, with small roles in The Witcher and 400 Bullets. Though she may not be as seasoned, she brings passion and energy to the role of Njinga. She showcases not just her strength, but her vulnerabilities as well. Njinga soars off the page and becomes a true queen right before your eyes due to Oni’s thoughtful performance.
Another thing African Queens: Njinga does well is talk about the behaviors of the men of the tribe using the focus of today’s mental wellness studies. The king may have seemed indecisive and Njinga’s brother may seem psychopathic, but when framed in the very real depression that both appeared to suffer from, it adds context. To go through something like that is one thing, but to do so without having the language to understand why there was such a drastic change in mood and/or personality is different, especially when the backdrop of fighting slavery is added.
The episodes are shot beautifully and help tell the story almost as much as the words. The colors are bright, and the tribes are represented in ways that are distinct and each are given their own character. The only mild misgiving is the “when in doubt make them British” approach to accents, but it’s forgivable and only a small thing when put with the series as a whole.
African Queens: Njinga has the power to spark conversations and cause a thirst in those seeking more knowledge outside of what is taught in schools. There’s been a newly awakened focus on African royalty, and the kingdoms and tribes that existed where lies of poverty and destitution once lay. Along with this knowledge comes the fleshing out and humanization of these complex characters. We learn that before there was “Black” and before “African” there were Ndongoans, Matambans, and Kabasians. They were learned and educated people who were adept in trade and business. They also had faults and blindspots just like any historical dynasty or kingdom.
There’s a phrase that says, “If you want to be it, you need to see it.” Having something like this for a new generation to see is key important to guaranteeing the next form of African ancestral royalty is just around the corner. The series is both education and inspiration and well worth the watch. It’s something the whole family can watch and only contains some mildly suggestive themes. But it’s a series that will spark conversation and a hunger for more knowledge.
African Queens: Njinga premieres February 15, 2023, on Netflix.
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Stacey Yvonne is an entertainment journalist who is often found in some corner of the internet pontificating about pop culture and its effect on women, Blackfolk and the LGBT+ community. You can see more of her work at https://syvonnecreative.com