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Watching African Queens: Njinga feels akin to the experience of bingeing a biopic and then racing to Google afterward to find out how much of it really happened — only you don’t need to wait til the end to get the facts, and you don’t need to rely on questionable search results for reliable answers. The Netflix series is a documentary that plays like an epic drama, weaving together expert interviews with lavishly produced scripted scenes.
The slight downside of this approach is that the series doesn’t dig as deeply as one might expect from either an extensive docuseries or a prestige miniseries; it’s less exhaustive analysis than intro course. But that’s kind of the point: “It’s time we all come together to know her name,” executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith declares in an opening voiceover. And on that front, African Queens: Njinga succeeds with flying colors.
African Queens: Njinga
Cast: Adesuwa Oni
Executive producers: Jada Pinkett Smith, Miguel Melendez, Terence Carter, Sahara Bushue, Jane Root, Maxine Watson, Ben Goold
As suggested by the colon in its title, African Queens: Njinga is just the first installment in an ongoing series set to focus on different female rulers from the continent. With rare exceptions (like Cleopatra, planned as the subject of season two), few are likely to be very familiar to most Americans. In that light, African Queens — like last year’s The Woman King — serves as both an overdue corrective to the Eurocentric narratives that dominate Western understanding of world history and a much-needed injection of fresh subject matter for an entertainment industry that’s already retraced the stories of Elizabeth I or Anne Boleyn more times than it’s possible to count.
As an opening gambit for such an endeavor, Njinga’s tale is hard to beat. African Queens picks up in early 17th-century Ndongo (now part of modern-day Angola) amid particularly troubled times; the Portuguese, with their insatiable hunger for slaves, have been encroaching on the territory for decades. Over four 45-minute chapters, the series traces a linear path through Njinga’s ascent from a beloved princess to a ferocious leader in her own right, famed for her skill as both a warrior and a diplomat. Her remarkable success in the face of European might, which to this day marks her as an enduring symbol of Angolan independence, makes her an easy heroine to root for.
Which isn’t to say African Queens completely glosses over the less savory aspects of her biography. Interview subjects tackle the conversation around Njinga’s personal involvement in the trading of slaves, for instance, with one carefully pointing out that “There are no perfect solutions in this time period because slavery is so endemic” while another patiently delineates between the kind of slavery Njinga’s family would have grown up with and the far more degrading chattel slavery practiced by Europeans. Rumors of Njinga committing fratricide or engaging in cannibalism are treated with similar caution. The talking heads weigh in with their informed opinions, but the questions — impossible to either prove or disprove at this point, centuries after her death — are ultimately left open.
But African Queens mostly paints a flattering, inspiring portrait of Njinga — and an indelible one, thanks to brisk storytelling that balances factual authority with vivid emotion. Although the hybrid format can take a bit of getting used to, it ultimately proves to be more an asset than a hindrance. The show’s charismatic roster of experts — which include the usual array of academics and historians, but also more close-up perspectives from figures like Queen Diambi Kabatusuila, woman king of the Bakwa Luntu people, or Rosa Cruz e Silva, former director of the National Archives of Angola — free the scripted portions from the burden of awkward exposition. It’s they who provide relevant context about the traditions of Njinga’s culture, or the intensifying rivalry between the Portuguese and the Dutch, or Njinga’s reasons for embracing Christianity.
Meanwhile, a charismatic ensemble and thoughtful scripts ensure we see Njinga not as a historical abstraction (as so many biopics and biographies render their subjects), but as a flesh-and-blood human. It’s one thing to hear about the queen’s closeness with her sisters or her anguish over the murder of her infant son; it’s another thing to watch these intense feelings play out before our eyes. Actor Adesuwa Oni commands the screen with all the confidence befitting this larger-than-life royal. Hers is a Njinga that can make an enemy’s blood run cold with a mirthless smile or disarm a would-be lover with her sensuality — or move us to tenderness with shows of vulnerability.
Oni is so magnetic, in fact, that I found myself wishing more than once that she’d been allowed to anchor, say, a Game of Thrones-style drama about the politics of Ndongo, rather than a highlights reel of her life. It’s in such moments that African Queens‘ unavoidable limitations, as a broad overview rather than a deep dive, are most keenly felt.
Arguably, though, that in itself may only be further proof of its effectiveness: If it’s slightly frustrating that this project only seems to be scratching the surface of Njinga’s complexity as a real ruler or narrative potential as a fictionalized heroine, it’s only because it mounts such a compelling case for her appeal to begin with.
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