‘African Queens: Njinga’ Review: Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Netflix series about the original Woman King

When the West African kingdoms of Matamba, Ndongo and Luamba as well as the Congo were colonized by the Portuguese, the foreigners called the country Angola, misleadingly “ngola”. Bantu(Opens in a new tab) Word for “king” as the name of the region rather than the monarchy it represented.

That’s the kind of misconception that the “mother of Angola,” legendary Queen Njinga, exploited.

African Queens: Njinga, A new four-episode documentary from Netflix, executive producer Jada Pinkett-Smith and documentary production company Nutopia explores the life and reign of Queen Njinga and the true story of the African queen who successfully fought Portuguese slave traders and inspired a nation.

Queen Njinga was a fearsome warrior and an even more adept tactician. She resisted the Portuguese invasion of Ndongo for over 30 years and during her reign not only made a serious dent in the West African slave trade but transformed herself from princess to queen regent and the ultimate Ngola of not one but two kingdoms. Although she was given the given name “Ana de Sousa” after her baptism, her native name was “Ngola Njinga”(Opens in a new tab)or “King Njinga” remained.

Pinkett-Smith made a wise decision in opting for documentary over fictionalization given budget and schedule constraints. The result is the docudrama miniseries African Queens: Njingawhich is a collaboration between Pinkett, writers Peres Owino (Bound: African vs. African American) and NneNne Iwuji (Chudor House Productions). The team used extensive re-enactments and enlisted the help of a select group of experts to fill in all the missing pieces in the tale of Queen Njinga Mbandi Ana de Sousa of Ndongo.

Njinga vs Nzghinga: Which is correct?

It was a common mistake among Westerners to mispronounce Queen Njinga’s name. Although she is listed as “Nzhinga” in the history books, evidence suggests that she signed documents using different spellings such as “Zinga” and “Jinga” – meaning the correct spelling and pronunciation of her name in the Kimbudu language , one of the most important languages ​​spoken in Angola is “Njinga” with a silent “n”.

Njinga’s rise to power

The Portuguese invasion of what is now Angola took place 30 years before Njinga’s birth in 1583 and resulted in the kidnapping and enslavement of the Matamba people to work in the sugar plantations of Brazil. The Portuguese successfully infiltrated the territory, exploiting rivalries between local nobles, many of whom were willing to betray neighboring kingdoms to avoid being ruled themselves.

The series begins with an adult Princess Njinga played by Adesuwa Oni (The Witcher: Origin of the Blood), already a fierce warrior and favored by her father Ngola Kia Samba. While her brothers, Princes Mbande and Kiluanji, warn of treachery from a Portuguese-influenced northern kingdom, the princess suggests they go to the source and deal with the Portuguese directly. The Ngola is killed by a treacherous general before either scenario can materialize.

Credit: Joe Alblas/Netflix

It is well known that Njinga came to power after the death of her brother Mbande. However, the docudrama sheds new light on the circumstances of her brother’s bloody rise to power before their reign, including his brutal treatment of his family and his underestimation of the Portuguese army.

The series features English-language re-enactments featuring key moments in the lives of Njinga and her sisters, balanced by interviews with a respected group of historians. Cécile Fromont, Professor of Art History at Yale University and author of Pictures of a mission in early modern Congo and Angola, Olivette Otele, Professor of Legacies and Memory of Slavery at the University of London and author of African Europeans: An Untold Story, and Luke Pepera, a Ghanaian anthropologist and author of Africa: Written from Historyamong others, are presented and provide a historical context.

African history as told by Africans

Unlike most modern Western documentaries, which rely solely on American historians to retell (or misinterpret) aspects of African history, Pinkett-Smith and the Nutopia team ensured historical accuracy by including several prominent African historians such as Rosa Cruz e Silva, director of the National Archives of Angola (1992-2008), to provide accurate accounts of everything from European politics in the region to daily life as a monarch of an African kingdom.

One of the most exciting voices you can hear African Queens: Njinga is that of HRH Queen Diambi Kabatusuila, the current Queen of the Bakwa Luntu. As the crowned traditional ruler of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she breaks everything from ancestor worship to the practice of women of royal birth taking male consorts, although the show comes close to legitimizing this Rumor that she had every one of her lovers killed after putting them to bed(Opens in a new tab).

Njinga (ADESUWA ONI) a

Photo credit: Netflix

The script occasionally takes liberties. The writers Owino and Iwuji, for example, made a conscious choice that both Njinga’s father, the king, and Mbande, his eventual successor, suffered from depression. Much has been written about Ngola Mbande’s inability to lead and how Njinga has had to step in to consult with him on many occasions. The series even addresses the theory that Mbande’s mental state may have led to his suicide. However, it also acknowledges what many historians have implied: Njinga could have her brother poisoned.

slavery in Africa

It is also known that Njinga allied with the Imbangala – Ngolan raiders who were formidable warriors who worked for the Portuguese and actively participated in the slave trade. However, her alliance with the warriors made her the most powerful person in the region, allowing her to provide sanctuary to formerly enslaved people and bringing hope to communities across the region by providing strength in numbers.

The docu-series does an excellent job of exploring the minefield of politics and violence that Njinga had to navigate to remain in power. History also does not shy away from the fact that although the queen opposed the Portuguese kidnapping and enslavement of her people, the Ndongo also enslaved many they conquered. However, the documentary works hard to indicate that the servants of the monarchy were not subjected to the horrors of slavery, which Europe practiced in the West for centuries.

African Protofeminism in the Spotlight

African Queens: Njinga not only sheds new light on one of the most formidable but misrepresented heroes in African history, but also reveals African Protofeminism(Opens in a new tab).

In the series was the most powerful woman in the kingdom before Njinga came to power Nganga, or spiritual advisor to the throne, who before her served as a counselor to Njinga’s father and brother. Then, when negotiating with the Portuguese, Njinga demands to be recognized as the “queen” of their nation (at least 200 years earlier The Dahomey women fought their first battle). And for most of her reign, Njinga ruled with her sisters Kambo and Funji, who appointed Kambo regent before her death.


Credit: Joe Alblas/Netflix

The four episodes of the first season of African queens are well written and incredibly informative. However, the re-enactments sometimes become redundant – one wonders if this story could be told in three episodes. Equally repetitive is the almost constant use of medium and close-ups, making the metaphor of the expansion of Queen Njinga’s empire almost impossible to visualize.

Although some of the violence depicted might be too much for younger viewers, this narration of Queen Njinga’s story is informative, and Oni’s performance holds the narration together. For those affected “Black trauma burnout‘ Pinkett-Smith and her team are to be commended for speaking the truth about slavery without resorting to it 12 years slave‘ Levels of brutality.

Rather than depicting Queen Njinga as an emotionless resistance fighter, the docudrama, through Oni’s passionate portrayal, depicts a woman who loved her family dearly but loved her country and the future of her people more – a warrior who spent most of her life at war and met in the Names of Survival Choices no one else would make.

African Queens: Njinga Premieres worldwide on Netflix on February 15.(Opens in a new tab)

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