Film Review: Why Netflix’s ‘Amina’ is a letdown for Black Muslim History
It was officially released in 2017, but Netflix’s acquisition of ‘Amina’ s caused a major buzz online, particularly among Nigerians. The story of Queen Amina of Zazzau is a sneak peak into the vestiges of African royalty prior to chattel slavery and colonialism, and one which has been preserved through traditional Hausa songs. A statue of her is erected at the National Arts Theatre in Lagos State, and she is mentioned in the last installment of Black British Director Steve McQueen’s award-winning series ‘Small Axe’. Lastly, Amina was the muse behind the critically-acclaimed 2019 Nollywood animation film ‘Malika’. Here’s a take from Journalist Adama Juldeh Munu.
‘Amina’, the coming-of-age historical feature film directed by Nigerian filmmaker Izu Ojukwu, was released by Netflix on November 4th 2021. It focuses on the Kingdom of Zazzau during the 16th century (one of several Hausa kingdoms at the time), and its famous royal who uses her military skills and tactics to defend it from internal and foreign forces. While it might sound like the bog-standard Hollywood kingdom-epic, Izu chooses to focus on her ascension as an heir apparent or magajiya, rather than her 34-year imperial conquests as Queen, which she is well known for.
In the first part of the film, we’re introduced to a young Amina, participating in royal court life with her father, King Nikautu and sister Zaria. Historians say as a child she was interested in the ‘martial arts’, and we’re shown a good articulation of where that came from among her other commendable traits. For instance, in one scene, Amina stands up to her father and the royal court when a slave-fighter from another tribe is denied his freedom, following a victory match with the Zazzau’s prized warrior. Her ability to show empathy is apparent when she befriends his daughter. As an adult, she’s gifted with strength and fortitude, which of course becomes important as she embarks on her journey to her ultimate destiny to protect her family’s legacy- which sadly comes at a huge price during the film’s climax.
That journey’s finale is of course predictable. We expect Amina to win. And while the plot line is simple, I had hoped the few surprise turns we received came in earlier on during the film, and were fleshed out better. Perhaps her father should have been slain earlier, to further enhance Amina’s character arc., because it seems her only dilemma lies outside of herself . The army general’s slave-turned wife submits to his villainous and treacherous plan to kill King Nikautu. She promised Zazzau and several other kingdoms in return. But would the writers really have us believe she is that naive, especially when it’s suggested she is just one of his multiple wives?
Zaria is killed during a clash between Amina’s cavalry and that of an enemy tribe. While her relationship with her sister is central to Amina’s identity (she too is a warrior princess too) , Zaria’s importance as a fighter side-kick is undermined when you consider that the penultimate fight towards the end is a meagre five minutes long. The latter was perhaps the biggest letdown. Her fling with Igala prince Danjuma (played by veteran Hausa actor Ali Nuhu) is fledgling and wanting. It was a missed opportunity to delve into Amina’s flirtation with marriage and how it could complicate her impending rule. But like a lot of other subplots, it’s not given enough attention.
That it is a biopic on a famous Muslim personality, initially it was surprising to see very few depictions of any Islamic influences on any of the characters and the larger society. In fact, paganism features quite heavily and is in keeping with historian M.G.Smith’s statement that while Islam was introduced to Zazzau around 1456, pagan practicies were still important in daily life until the Fulani conquest of 1808. Besides the occasional generic Middle eastern background music, and the one time ‘Allah’ (the Arabic name for God) is mentioned in the film, there was not much else that gives the audience the impression that this was a near-flourishing Islamic society.
As the popular saying goes — ‘don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story’. But sometimes it felt like this strategy came at the cost of the importance of a moment like this for African and Muslim storytelling. It is also why I was surprised to see the film begin with the words ‘at a time of female subjugation’. The vast majority of women featured are enslaved women who face appalling treatment at the hands of their captors, when being sold. Their context within the film is silent, although it’s safe to presume they were taken through warfare. But it is difficult to gauge this, as much of the film focuses on palace life and does not effectively showcase the ordinary lives of women citizens in Zazzau. This has probably been used as a tool to showcase the idea that Amina was exceptional for her time, but we know of course this may not have been the case. The army general at one point remarks that a Queen has never sat on the throne. But according to historian Beverly Mack, historical accounts suggest the queens of Zazzau were renowned warrior-queens including Amina’s mother, Queen Bakwa Turunku.
Overall, there were some good performances from Luch Ameh (who plays Amina), whose fighting scenes were well choreographed. Asabe Madaki who plays Aladi Ameh- her stand-alone speech to the character Amina was stellar, and Jennifer Ezekiel Ade who plays the town’s priestess and did a good job of carrying the mystique of her character well.
While there are scenes where the colour grading and lighting could have been improved, the choice of colour palette of the set used to reconstruct the regalia and society of Zazzau was a beautiful orchestra of reds, golds, purples and magnolias. This was accompanied by the West African costumes worn by the royal courtiers and the soldiers to reflect the time, and was a good touch also.
It is not everyday that one watches a movie about a real-life military Queen with an African and Islamic personality, especially on Netflix. It was a good film with much potential and other aspects left to be desired. Hopefully it will be the first of many works produced to show this unique and distinctive part of Islamic history and civilisation.