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By Citizen Reporter

Journalist


Jada Pinkett Smith helms new docu-series focused on African Queens

The first season of 'African Queens' will cover the life of 17th century warrior queen Njinga of Ndongo and Matamba.


American actress Jada Pinkett Smith has donned her Executive Producer hat at the helm of a new documentary series exploring the lives of prominent and iconic African Queens.

The first season of the series, which will be available on Netflix, will cover the life of Njinga, the complex, captivating, and fearless 17th-century warrior queen of Ndongo and Matamba, in modern-day Angola.

As the nation’s first female ruler, Njinga earned a reputation for her blend of political and diplomatic skill with military prowess and became an icon of resistance.

In addition to producing African Queens, Pinkett Smith will also narrate the four, 45-minute episodes that were co-executive produced by Miguel Melendez, Terence Carter and Sahara Bushue for Westbrook Studios as well as Jane Root, Maxine Watson and Ben Goold for Nutopia.

“There are so many stories to be told in regard to the black experience globally. I think that it’s important to tell the stories now because we can and haven’t always been able to. 

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, said Jada Pinkett Smith in a statement. 

“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,” she added. 

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African Queen will also feature actors in dramatisations of certain parts of the documentary, illustrating crucial points in the story that is being told. 

African Queens will begin streaming on 15 February 2023 on Netflix, one of the world’s leading entertainment services with 231 million paid memberships in over 190 countries enjoying TV series, films and games across a wide variety of genres and languages.  

WATCH: The official trailer for ‘African Queens: Njinga’

‘African Queens’ Q & A with Jada Pinkett Smith 

What was the original inspiration for African Queens?

This particular project went through many different machinations, but it started with Willow. Raising a daughter like Willow, 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.

How did you go about picking the queens?

I really wanted to represent black women. 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 just for my community to be able to know those stories because there are tons of them!

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. I was definitely interested in particular people, Njinga being one of them.

A lot of people probably don’t know this about me, but I’m a historian in my own right and Njinga came up in my reading. I just found her fascinating. She was a powerhouse. It was important to me that their stories were told well and Nutopia is one of the best partners because they do this so well. They’re going to research whatever name or idea is given to them to the hilt. I was really happy that they were passionate about this project as well. They just know how to do the deep dive.

What did you love about Njinga in particular?

To be a queen is a complicated position. To be a woman in patriarchal culture is also complicated, but the thing that I loved about her was her perseverance, and how much she loved her sisters, and how she would not give up on protecting her family and was willing to do whatever it took to protect her own people and her Kingdom from the ravages of the transatlantic trade. She understood that it would always mean making hard and difficult choices, but she was a leader who ruled in complicated times, and I think we have to understand her in the context of those times.

Why did you decide to go the docudrama route vs a narrative feature?

The difficulty with narrative is that sometimes you want to take creative license and stretch ideas a bit, where I really wanted to be able to stick to the historical facts of each woman. I just felt like that was important, specifically because these are stories that aren’t well-known.

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There’s lots of historical literature around all the queens of England so, if you decide to stretch their stories in telling a narrative, the purity of their existence is at our fingertips. That’s not the case with black African queens so it was supremely important for me to do a docudrama. I wanted to be educated, factually, around the lives of these women.

How involved are you in casting and what were you looking for in the actors for the narrative interludes?

Authenticity. I’m so involved. It’s a difficult process because these aren’t big-budget documentaries, but we go through tape after tape after tape. When I saw the actress for Njinga, Adesuwa Oni, I knew right away. I was like, “We’ve got to have her!” Because she had such a potent strength, but she also had a level of vulnerability that I loved as well. She was very nuanced, and as an actress, I’m always looking for that because these characters are really complicated. I really thought she did Njinga a beautiful justice.

In 2023, it hits different to ask actors to play and viewers to watch depictions of slavery, when we are attuned to the trauma of this history for the black community. How do you negotiate that line? It’s definitely a delicate walk, but I also think that it’s important to acknowledge history and slavery is an aspect of our history. It is a very delicate walk, but I don’t think that it’s a walk that we can overlook.

Writers Peres Owino and NneNne Iwuji speak with great passion about the project. What was it like reading their scripts and watching their work?

They did a brilliant job. They’re extremely talented and I gave very few notes. I feel really blessed that they were part of this project.

Why do you think it’s important to tell these stories in this moment?

There are so many stories to be told in regard to the black experience globally. I think that it’s important to tell the stories now because we can and haven’t always been able to. 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.

What are some of the conversations that you hope we have coming out of this?

I’m hoping that it can pierce some of the stereotypes, I really do. I feel like there are stereotypes on both sides, about what black Americans are and stereotypes about what black Africans are. I want people to take pride in the essence of what we are all together and what we have done to overcome the challenges that we’ve faced. I’m hoping that it’ll be a bridge and honour and provide more understanding around the seeds from which we’ve been birthed.

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Compiled by Kaunda Selisho