Film & Television

Celebrating Fierce, Forgotten Figures in
‘African Queens: Njinga’

When you hear the name Jada Pinkett Smith, what do you think of?

The candid multigenerational conversations on her Red Table Talk series? Her infamous open marriage? Or, more likely, her husband’s confrontation with host Chris Rock at last year’s Oscars? It was the slap heard ‘round the world, and a disservice to Pinkett Smith, who is proving herself to be a powerful executive producer with her new Netflix docuseries African Queens: Njinga.

 Netflix released African Queens: Njinga last week, midway through Black History Month, and the timing is appropriate. A fearless warrior, nuanced diplomat, and mighty ruler, Njinga is an historical figure whose story is long overdue.

African Queens, narrated by Pinkett Smith, is the product of a host of talented filmmakers, nearly all of whom are women of color, including writers NneNne Iwuji and Peres Owino, and directors Tina Gharavi, Ethosheia Hylton, Susanna Ward, and Victoria Adeola Thomas. The series combines expert talking heads with dramatized scenes, which is not a particularly unusual approach.

What is unusual, however, is the quality of the acting, art direction, and script. Njinga’s forgotten story is brought to life with tremendous skill and artistry, making it as entertaining as it is important.

The series begins with Pinkett Smith’s confident, measured voiceover, “Centuries ago, in West Central Africa, where kingdoms rose and fell, lived a woman destined to lead.” We meet the young Njinga (Adesuwa Oni), beloved daughter of Ndongo’s King Ngola (Thabo Bopape). Under his watchful gaze, she trains to be a soldier and is clearly favored by her father despite her gender. The Portuguese have long terrorized the Ndongo and other tribes, capturing and enslaving thousands each year to work sugar plantations in Brazil. The Africans are the “Black gold,” we learn, to ensure production of “white gold.” The wealth generated by seventeenth century European colonization and slavery is nearly impossible to fathom.

In addition to the growing slave trade, Ngola must protect his people and his throne from other tribes, and particularly from the Imbangla, a band of ruthless mercenaries. When he leaves to try and find allies to help hold off the Portuguese, he is betrayed and brutally murdered, and is succeeded by his son Mbande (Philips Nortey). The new king, wary of anyone who might challenge him, kills his brothers and Njinga’s infant son.

Grief-stricken but loyal to king and kingdom, Njinga becomes an elite general. She outfights and outsmarts a fraction of the Imbangala and negotiates a truce of sorts with the Portuguese. (Her courage and cunning in both situations are thrilling to watch.) She returns to Ndongo a national hero and after Mbande’s death is made Queen Regent and, shortly thereafter, Queen. Although the Portuguese are soon joined by slavers from the Netherlands and other European nations, Njinga is able at last, and through intercession of the Pope, to claim sovereignty for her people through her lifetime and that of her sister and a short list of future queens. (Eventually, however, Ndongo was taken by the Portuguese. As modern-day Angola, the country did not achieve independence again until 1975.)

I’ve just related a Cliff Notes version of a much more complex story. Over the course of four one-hour episodes, Njinga grows from a promising teen to a dedicated freedom fighter. The series doesn’t shy away from scenes of violent combat, personal tragedy, joyful reunion, or long-awaited triumph. And, much of its success is due to Oni’s stellar performance.

A British actor of African descent, Oni is just 28 years old and has a fairly modest list of television credits — nothing that would hint at the sheer force of her star turn here. The entire cast is excellent, but there is never any doubt about who rules the screen.

Although the dramatized scenes are beautifully executed and continually enthralling, African Queens: Njinga is immeasurably strengthened by the academics, historians, and other experts who add fact to fiction. These include Dr. Mary Hicks, a professor from University of Chicago; Luke Pepera, an anthropologist; and Dr. Kelley Carter Jackson, a professor from Wellesley, among others. Most powerful are Queen Diambi Kabatusuila, current ruler of the Bakwa Luntu people, and Rosa Crus e Silva, former director of the National Archives of Angola. Their inclusion adds a personal connection, deeply felt emotion, urgency, and immediacy to this centuries-old story that you probably haven’t heard before.

Which brings me back to Pinkett Smith. In an interview with Deadline Hollywood, she shares that the idea for the series came from her daughter Willow. “Who are the African queens and why don’t we know about them?” the younger woman had asked. As Pinkett Smith explains, “Now is a wise time to launch as The Woman King andWakanda Forever have made it easier for Netflix to tell this story … We’re hoping this could inspire the next generation. I don’t think modern TV has even scratched the surface on these stories.” She underscores the series’ relevance in TIME, saying “These stories, about women who were queens, should be as accessible as a story about Queen Elizabeth, all those many different Queen Elizabeth stories that we have access to. They’re so many extraordinary stories of this nature that we haven’t had access to. We weren’t taught about it in school.”

If you enjoyed Gina Prince-Bythewood’s epic The Woman King, you’ll find African Queens: Njinga to be a similarly enlightening blend of entertainment and history. While it may not have the big-screen production values of the Viola Davis vehicle, the series benefits tremendously from the intelligence and insights of its commentators — and from the dedicated passion of a talented producer whose husband may have recently slapped someone.

I for one look forward to meeting more African Queens. And, Pinkett Smith’s second season will reportedly reintroduce us to another. Cleopatra.

African Queens: Njinga is available to stream on Netflix.

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