Many of us are all too familiar with watching the intrigues and intricacies of monarchies on screen—the dichotomy between treason and loyalty, the convoluted politics, the legacies of queens and kings—often reserved for European historical fiction. Streaming platforms are rife with white-centric tales like The Tudors and The Crown among others. So what would it be like to watch plots that have taken place in the courts of African rulers instead? And what stories can we expect to come out of such adaptations? African Queens—a new docuseries by executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith—answers these questions.
With a well-positioned release on the cusp of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, this Netflix gem offers a rare and in-depth look at Africa’s often overlooked female rulers and the roles they’ve played in laying the groundwork for freedom and independence.
Season one of African Queens: Njinga, a four-part docu-drama, traces the life of Njinga—a 17th-century warrior queen of Ndongo and Matamba (present day Angola in southwestern Africa). Brought to life by actor Adesuwa Oni, Njinga was the nation’s first female ruler, who gained respect and renown for her political, diplomatic savvy and military prowess.
Over four 45-minute episodes, the series traces a linear path through Njinga’s ascent from a beloved princess to a famed warrior and leader in her own right. We follow Njinga’s rise to power and her fight against Portuguese colonizers and slave traders, and understand why she is marked as an enduring symbol of Angolan independence to this day.
According to Jada, the series was inspired by her 22-year-old daughter Willow, who questioned her about the history and meaning behind the word “queen.” “We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me, as well as for my daughter and my community,” said Jada in a press statement. “The sad part is that we don’t have ready access to these historical women who were so powerful and were the backbones of African nations.”
“We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me, as well as for my daughter and my community.”
By joining forces with two African female writers, Peres Owino and NneNne Iwuji, Jada not only creates an inspiring and indelible portrait of Njinga, but does so in a way that balances factual authority with vivid emotion. What’s particularly unique and interesting is how the show weaves together compelling storytelling through lavishly produced scripted scenes with expert interviews containing talking-head, on-camera interviews with scholars and historians who provide deeper background and context.
Although this unorthodox, hybrid format can take some getting used to, it ultimately proves to enrich and enhance the narrative. With Jada as the narrator, the show also includes close-up perspectives from exciting figures like Queen Diambi Kabatusuila, woman king of the Bakwa Luntu people, and Rosa Cruz e Silva, former director of the National Archives of Angola.
The charismatic roster of experts provides rich and accurate details on everything from the traditions of Njinga’s culture to European politics in the region to what day-to-day life was like for a monarch in an African kingdom. And, in doing so, they echo a common sentiment: the importance of Black people telling their own stories and how this breaks away from how, and who, told these stories before.
The charismatic roster of experts provides rich and accurate details on everything from the traditions of Njinga’s culture to European politics in the region to what day-to-day life was like for a monarch in an African kingdom.
Reportedly, the African Queens series will continue to highlight the lives and legacies of one prominent queen from the African continent each season. A few media outlets have already announced that the next installation will tell the story of the fearless, captivating life of Cleopatra.
“There are so many stories to be told in regard to the Black experience globally. I think that it’s important to tell these stories now because we can and haven’t always been able to,” added Jada. “Even though there’s a lot more work to do, we’re at a place now where we have the ability and the opportunity to tell stories that have been forgotten as well as the stories that are part of our everyday lives, and what a gift that is. It’s a testament to standing on the shoulders of all of those that came before us that didn’t have the opportunities that we have but were part of carving out the path for all of us to get to where we are today. African Queens is in honor of that.”
It is in this light—and by following in the footsteps of period action films like The Woman King (2022)—that African Queens injects a much-needed dose of fresh subject matter for an entertainment industry that has already retraced the stories of Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I far too many times.
© Reanne Rodrigues (6/20/2023) – Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
To watch the Netflix trailer for African Queens: Njinga, click here.
To watch the full African Queens: Njinga series, click here.
To read our opinion piece on The Woman King, click here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: African Queens: Njinga. Njinga (ADESUWA ONI) in African Queens: Njinga. Cr. Netflix © 2023
Bottom Photo: African Queens: Njinga. (L to R) Kambu (CHIPO KUREYA), Njinga (ADESUWA ONI) and Funji (MARILYN NNADABE) in African Queens: Njinga. Cr. Netflix © 2023
Pull quotes are courtesy of the Netflix Electronic Press Kit.
Both photos are courtesy of Netflix and used here with their permission.