From The Woman King to Netflix’s African Queens, how African history turned into pop
For as long as I can remember I have loved stories. As a child, I liked fantasy best. I read Darren Shan, Joseph Delaney and CS Lewis. I observe Hercules, Aladdin And mulan. I watched the anime Naruto And Dragon Ball Z. I played games from The Legend of Zelda, Monster Hunter And dragon quest Series.
Because each of them contained characters, creatures, deities, and concepts from the cultures of a range of places, from Japan and China to Greece and England, I unknowingly immersed myself in them.
By CS Lewis Chronicles of Narnia series, I learned about fauns. Out of AladdinI found out about the Thousand and one Night. Out of monster hunter And dragon questI found out about that Qilin (or kirin, in Japan), a chimeric giraffe- or deer-like creature. Out of NarutoI found out about that shinobi (the ninja), about the Kappaa half-human, half-tortoise minor god who roams rivers, often dragging unsuspecting victims down into their depths, and about the Japanese Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu.
It was only as a university student, reading and writing about major ancient and medieval African civilizations, that I realized that elements from the cultures of this The stories I had enjoyed so much in my youth had a striking number of missing passages. So it wasn’t that I didn’t connect with those stories; I had. But after learning just a small fraction of the true historical depth and cultural richness of various African societies, it occurred to me that they have been underexplored and underexplored in pop culture.
This could finally change. In the last five years we have seen the publication of a spate of pop culture stories exploring African cultures, from novels (be it by Marlon James Dark Star Trilogy or Tomi Adeyemis Children of blood and bones), to movies (Black Panther And The Woman King) and TV series (African Queens: Njinga).
Black PantherThe 2018 release was a turning point. It was successful both critically and commercially, grossing $1.3 billion worldwide. For media executives, creatives and the general public, this definitely proved their existence Is an audience – an exceptionally large one – for African stories. (Wakanda, the film’s fictional African kingdom, was of course the invention of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but in making the adaptation, director Ryan Coogler and lead actor Chadwick Boseman traveled around the continent, delving into aspects of the cultures that formed it her legacy.)
Black Panther paved the way for more of these stories to be told. African Queens: Njinga, a documentary series I worked on, was one of them. It is a passion project of American actress Jada Pinkett Smith. She had been talking to her daughter, Willow, who had asked her who the queens of Africa were and why we don’t know anything about them.
The series follows the life of Njinga Mbande, a 17th-century queen of Ndongo, in modern-day Angola, who is best known for resisting aggressive attempts by the Portuguese to colonize her kingdom. For 60 years she fought them, exercising remarkable skills in politics, diplomacy, and warfare. In Angola and other neighboring countries, she is viewed by many as a heroine. A statue was erected to her in Luanda, the capital of Angola, in 1975 when the nation declared independence; it still stands. The series’ dramatic sequences were shot in South Africa and expert input came from the US, UK and Angola. African Queens: Njinga was a global production intended to be consumed by a global audience.
The fact that such stories have only recently been told and shared on global platforms is not because storytellers – African or otherwise – have only recently started telling stories about African stories and myths. In the wake of decolonization, many African storytellers – from journalists and historians to writers and filmmakers – questioned what it means to be African and the place of traditional African values in societies so heavily influenced by European culture.
However, with the increasing influence of India, China and many African countries, more and more stories of these countries are being told and adapted. You can access Korean dramas and Bollywood movies as well as American and European shows on Netflix and other streaming platforms. Japanese anime, which was a fringe aspect of nerd culture when I watched it as a kid, has gone mainstream. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho parasite swept the Oscars 2020 and Squid Gamecreated by his compatriot Hwang Dong-hyuk, was unfathomably popular. Black Panther, The Woman King And African Queens: Njinga are just a part, albeit an important one, of this broader shift.
However, given the size, diversity, depth of story and storytelling that characterizes Africa, there is a wealth of stories yet to be told. I think of Sundiata Keita, the 13th-century founder of the Mali Empire, arguably Africa’s most famous medieval empire. Or Mansa Musa, his great-nephew, who made a magnificent pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324; When he and his train stopped in Egypt, they spent so much gold in Cairo that they flooded the market with it and then debased it for more than a decade. Or Amanirenas, the one-eyed warrior queen who fought against the troops of the Roman Emperor Augustus.
When the history buffs of future generations watch movies or TV series or play games depicting African cultures, they will come to know and appreciate them in a way that no non-African has truly done before. They might even be inspired to write their own stories about Africa. And in this way, African stories, histories and cultures will take their place on the global stage alongside those of other cultures from which they have been excluded for far too long.
Luke Pepera Is an anthropologist, writer and broadcaster
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https://www.ft.com/content/fc9abd3e-a80a-4c23-bfca-205f0b7d7ed6 From The Woman King to Netflix’s African Queens, how African history turned into pop