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African Queens: Njinga review – Jada Pinkett Smith’s docudrama is like a mediocre Channel 5 show

This tale of a 17th-century African female ruler features impressive academics, but they’re drowned out by poor-quality dramatic sequences. It lacks context, analysis or personality

Photo: Redressing wrong … Adesuwa Oni as the title character in African Queens: Njinga. Photograph: Netflix

By Ellen E Jones

THERE was a time, not so very long ago, when Black people rarely featured in period drama or documentary – and even then, only as slaves. Other historical stories from Africa and her diaspora – of scientists, soldiers, philosophers, artists and adventurers – were routinely omitted from our screens. This new docudrama, launched to coincide with US Black History Month, joins the ongoing effort to redress that wrong, with a series on Njinga, the 17th-century ruler of Ndongo and Matamba (in present-day Angola). Stories of other powerful women in the continent are planned to follow.

African Queens’s production team also includes royalty – Black Hollywood royalty, that is: Jada Pinkett Smith is credited as executive producer and narrator. Although “narration” is a rather grand way to describe her contribution: reading a few lines of scene-setting voiceover at the beginning of each episode.

Most of the story is instead dramatised, by a cast that includes Adesuwa Oni as Njinga and Thabo Rametsi as Kasa, a leader of the Imbangala mercenaries. Over four episodes, we see the warrior queen’s rise to power and the sacrifices necessary to maintain her nation’s independence. According to one historian, she was the only female African leader, or “woman king”, to be recognised by the European colonisers.

These dramatised sections are pretty workaday stuff, of the same indifferent quality you would expect from equivalent scenes in a daytime-scheduled, Channel 5 Tudors doc. The particular problem here is inevitable comparisons with recent Hollywood movies. There are battles in African Queens, but nothing like the thrilling stunt sequences pulled off by the director Gina Prince-Bythewood in The Woman King. There are scenes of grief and betrayal, but nothing to match the raw emotional power of Angela Bassett’s Oscar-nominated turn in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

What Netflix’s Njinga has got that these other African screen queens haven’t is the input of credentialed historians and other experts. They can speak direct to the practice of slavery in pre-colonial Africa and how it differed, in scale and kind, from the plantation slavery of the Americas – which should shut up the Twitter contrarians, at least momentarily. Queen Diambi Kabatusuila, a real-life woman king of the Bakwa Luntu people, in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, provides a rare and useful first-hand perspective on the role of the monarch.

Some of these academics also evince an affinity with Njinga that is touching to behold. Angolan historian Rosa Cruz e Silva is brought to tears by these reflections, and Dr Kellie Carter Jackson of Wellesley College recounts Njinga’s youthful escapades with the kind of excitable deference usually reserved for Beyoncé. Notably, there was that time when a Portuguese envoy attempted to humiliate Njinga by providing no chair for her to sit on during an important negotiation. Unfazed, Njinga simply commanded an attendant to kneel and sat on their back instead. This, mind you, was about 350 years before the pioneering Black American congresswoman Shirley Chisholm said: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

Chisholm doesn’t get a mention in African Queens, and in general it lacks context or deeper analysis beyond the straight recounting of Njinga’s biography. We’re told in passing that Ndongo was “a very sophisticated society”, but don’t get much detail of daily life to chew on beyond some intriguingly scattered crumbs. (Male concubines, you say? Interesting …) It also seems a shame to secure the participation of academic luminaries such as Prof Olivette Otele – vice-president of the Royal Historical Society and chair of Bristol’s Race Equality Commission – then have her recite a list of facts in chronological order. That, surely, is a job for Pinkett Smith.

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