Unpacking an important criticism of Jada Pinkett Smith’s African Queens: Njinga Netflix docuseries – Screen Shot
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Unpacking an important criticism of Jada Pinkett Smith’s African Queens: Njinga Netflix docuseries

There was a time when African cinematography that didn’t cast Black people solely as slaves felt like a farfetched dream for those of us who are diasporans. I’ve always desperately longed for my Angolan culture and history to be represented on mainstream screens. Still, I never considered the impact of the creators’ and writers’ gaze—especially when a win for the continent might not equate to a win for the country.

In February 2023, Netflix released part one of its newest docuseries African Queens: Njinga, produced and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith. It promised to shed light on some of Africa’s greatest female monarchs, with the first four episodes tracing the rise, reign, family betrayal and political rivalries of Queen Njinga (commonly known as Nzinga), the 17th-century ruler of Ndongo and Matamba (in present-day Angola).

Speaking at the premiere held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, Pinkett Smith, joining in through a Zoom call, told the room that the inspiration behind the docuseries, which blends dramatisation and documentary, stemmed from a conversation with her daughter.

At first, we thought, ‘Let’s go to Africa and study the queens of Africa together as mother and daughter.’ Because that terminology queen is tossed around a lot but what does it take to actually be a queen? So that’s where it really got inspired,” the actress and talk show host told the audience.

As one of the latest initiatives to highlight the lost stories of African female rulers, African Queens follows in the footsteps of The Woman King, a period action film which tells the story of the Agojie—a brigade of female warriors from present-day Benin, and Malika: Warrior Queen, an animated feature film based on Amina of Zaria, the mid 16th century Hausa warrior queen, by Nigerian-born, US-based animator Roye Okupe.

In 2022, after the Netflix docuseries had been announced months earlier, American Rapper 50 Cent also publicised that he was executively producing a scripted series titled Queen Nzinga for the American premium cable channel Starz. In his series, Nigerian-born actress Yetide Badaki has been cast as the Queen while in Pinkett-Smith’s, British-Nigerian actor Adesuwa Oni played Njinga.

In the early stages of making African Queens, Kenyan-born Peres Owino, one of the series’ writers, told SCREENSHOT that this African-American hunger for this kind of content is a great opportunity for filmmakers to use these stories as a bridge for diasporans.

“African-Americans were diasporans first, so Njinga’s story and her fighting against the slave trade, who do you think she was trying to save?” Owino posed. “And if we can use story to act together then we can get the wholeness the diaspora is seeking, we will find each other in our stories,” the writer added.

While the growing movement of breaking away from male-dominated narratives of the continent’s history of leaders is a win for Black African women, how much of a win is it for Angolans when Pinkett Smith’s series was filmed throughout South Africa and both protagonists are set to be non-natives?

“I’ve watched the Semba Comunicação’s movie Njinga: Queen of Angola [premiered in 2013], so I came with no expectations for Netflix’s Njinga,” said Manuel daCosta, 43, from Luanda, Angola.

“Despite the fact that the series had more of a historical evolution from the film, which I found profound, I didn’t understand why there was no use of the native tongue Kimbundu—a Bantu language that originated from Angola. In negating this, they dismissed the spirituality of the story,” Da Costa added.

On the other side of things, Kavulamine Arantes, a social activist from Angola, told SCREENSHOT that the lack of infrastructure in Angola could be one of the reasons why production didn’t film within the country. Arantes stated: “We [Angolans] are not prepared for big [production] things. Yes, we are growing and have very good actors but we lack support and initiative from those who regulate these matters. But we need to take ownership and matters into our own hands so we can tell our own stories.”

Shortly after the release of the series, BBC World News caught up with Owino and Oni, who played the Queen. In response to her Nigerian roots, Oni stated that she focused on the humanity of the person, rather than nationality when auditioning. “I was grateful to get the opportunity to tape for it and do a call-back, and when I was told I got the part what was important to me was to honour the person.”

The actress continued: “I’ve been given the opportunity to play Americans in my life, does that mean African-Americans will say I’ve got no right to play them? But it doesn’t mean I don’t understand that for some people it is important.”

Netflix’s African Queens: Njinga includes the input of credentialed experts and historians. One is Queen Diambi Kabatusuila, a real-life woman king of the Bakwa Luntu people, living in the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. In response to whether Netflix attempted to tap into the Angolan dialect, Owino told the BBC’s Nyasha Michelle that including Queen Kabatusuila as the continuation of the lineage of Njinga showcases that history has never ended.

“Whenever you have black people doing a film about black people, especially in Africa, it’s about finding that thing that’s honourable. It’s done with respect because we know why we’re doing it. We’re doing it to show the world who we really are because so many narratives have gone out that have put us in a specific light,” Owino concluded.

Penn Badgley reveals why he won’t participate in intimacy scenes in Netflix’s You anymore

In 2022, serial killers were given sex appeal. TikTok was flooded with thirst traps of Evan Peters portraying sadistic killer Jeffrey Dahmer in the Netflix series Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. Meanwhile, videos set to the backing track of Britney Spears’ ‘Criminal’ became commonplace as gen Zers fanned over these so-called charming sociopaths.

Now, in 2023, our favourite fictional madman Joe Goldberg is back, and he’s shaking up the industry by putting a stop to his intimacy scenes, and calling out Netflix at the same time.

Penn Badgley has played the role of serial killer and TV heartthrob Goldberg for four seasons in the highly popular psychological thriller You. Having first hit our screens in 2018, fans have built up a loyalty to Badgley’s character—and to the actor himself.

And with season four finally out and being consumed by the entirety of the fandom, a number of netizens are taking more and more interest in the man behind the mask. Particularly after some of his most recent interviews.

Having first gained recognition for his starring role in the much-loved series of the late noughties, Gossip Girl, Badgley’s since become a fan favourite, with his sincerity and authentic personality off-screen making him a hit among young millennials and gen Zers alike. And during a recent podcast where he was discussing You, he revealed some interesting insight into what the future of his acting career may look like.

During an episode of the actor’s own podcast Podcrushed, he revealed that he had no interest in doing intimacy scenes moving forward. Badgley explained: “One of the main things is like, do I want to put myself back in a career path where I’m just always a romantic lead? Fidelity in my—in every relationship, and especially my marriage—is important to me. And yeah, it just got to a point where I don’t want to do that.”

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The actor did go on to say that although he would prefer zero intimacy whatsoever while on screen, he was aware of the contract he’d signed going into the most recent season of You and so knew he couldn’t avoid it altogether.

Moreover, Badgley revealed that the show creator, Sera Gamble, was incredibly respectful and receptive to his feelings surrounding this topic and his request led to a “phenomenal reduction.”

This is an incredibly important conversation that hopefully will continue to grow and become commonplace moving forward. Intimacy coordinators are now at the bedrock of productions where these kinds of scenes take place and it’s imperative that all individuals involved feel heard and listened to.

As noted by Refinery29, shows such as Normal People and Sex Education have been applauded for their portrayal of open, honest and authentic sexual experiences. And the actors and actresses within those productions have praised intimacy coordinators for creating safe environments so that different power dynamics and scenarios can be explored cautiously and respectfully.

Of course, this respect and caution should then also be further expanded onto those who’re no longer interested in participating in that kind of content.

Badgley also had a few words to say surrounding the aforementioned sensationalism that occurred following the release of Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.

In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, the actor was asked how he feels about fans who’re a little too obsessed with serial killers. His response was incredibly Dan of him if you ask me, “Now, to be fair, with our show, you’re meant to fall in love with him. That’s on us. Ted Bundy, that’s on you. Jeffrey Dahmer, that is on Netflix. That is squarely on the shoulders of Netflix.”


Penn Badgley has a message for those of you who are a little TOO obsessed with Joe Goldberg and serial kworders 💀 #younetflix #pennbadgley #joegoldberg

♬ original sound - Entertainment Tonight

And he’s got a point. Netflix did receive a lot of justified criticism from those who felt it had been highly insensitive to rehash some of the most disturbing details of Dahmer’s killing spree, especially considering none of the victims’ families had been involved in the production.

So far we’ve only been gifted with the first part of season four of You. Although, thankfully we won’t have to wait too long as the second half is due to be released on 9 March. I suppose, until then, we’ll just have to spend our days happily watching Badgley drag Netflix to filth on TikTok. What could be more fun?