In the year 2019, you’d think we would have run out of “first ever” milestones as it relates to black and African cinema. But if this year’s crop of African Oscar selections is any indication, there is still much progress to be made. With a total of 9 films, this is the largest contingent of African entries ever submitted for Oscar consideration in Best International Feature. And even if they fall short of nominations, a number of these films have already made history before entering the race.
Leading the way is Senegal with “Atlantics” by Mati Diop, the first film directed by a black woman to compete for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Described as a “ghost love story”, this drama has mesmerized audiences en route to the Cannes Grand Prix, as well as the Sutherland Award for Best First Feature at the London Film Festival. “Atlantics” is distributed by Netflix, who are also backing another African contender in the form of “Lionheart.” Directed and starring Nollywood icon Genevieve Nnaji, this corporate drama tells a universal tale of family and legacy as a woman fights to save her father’s struggling transportation company. Though Nigeria boasts one of the world’s most prolific film industries, “Lionheart” marks the nation’s first ever Oscar submission.
Diop and Nnaji aren’t the only female directors among the list, as Algeria, Kenya and Morocco have also pinned their hopes on women. Like “Atlantics”, Algeria’s “Papicha” (directed by Mounia Meddour) and Morocco’s “Adam” (directed by Maryam Touzani) boast a Cannes pedigree by way of the festival’s Un Certain Regard section. Both films center woman confronting their societies’ conservative ideals, through fashion statements and embracing unwed motherhood respectively. Similarly, Ravneet Sippy Chadha’s “Subira” also portrays an act of rebellion, as a Muslim Kenyan girl threatens to break taboos by learning to dive.
Rounding out this group of Oscar contenders are two of the category’s stalwarts and two countries making rare appearances. After a back-to-back nomination and win in 2004 and 2005, South Africa’s hopes to impress Academy voters once again with “Knuckle City“, a gritty boxing drama that marks the second consecutive Jahmil X.T. Qubeka film to be selected. Meanwhile, Egypt hopes to finally break through with a nomination for Fawzi Saleh’s “Poisonous Roses” on the North African nation’s 34th attempt. And finally, Ghana will make its debut with Kwabena Gyansah’s survivalist odyssey “Azali,” joining Tunisia’s “Dear Son” by Mohamed Ben Attia.
Contender to watch: “Atlantics”