African Queens: Njinga Season 1 Review – a fascinating docudrama

By Nicole Ackman
Published: February 17, 2023
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African Queens: Njinga is an excellent docudrama series, with commendable acting and a great variety of experts interviewed, that brings to life the story of an African queen with whom most viewers will not be familiar.

We reviewed the Netflix documentary series African Queens: Njinga Season 1, released on February 16th, 2023.

In the 17th century, Ndongo and Matamba had a fearsome female queen named Njinga who persevered against the Portuguese. The European power had swarmed the area now known as Angola to plunder it for enslaved people to transport to their colonies in the Americas.

Most Americans have likely never heard of Njinga, but Netflix’s docudrama series says, “It’s time we all come to know her name.” The series is the brainchild of producer and narrator Jada Pinkett Smith and brings to life Njinga’s story, interspersed with talking head interviews that provide more context about her life.

African Queens: Njinga Season 1 Review

The series, written by Peres Owino and NneNne Iwuji, is split into four episodes, each forty-five minutes long. The series begins when Njinga is a young princess, serving as an intelligent advisor to her father, Ngola Kilombo Kia Kasenda, and wary of her brothers’ ambitions. She was trained in battle and politics and sought to protect her sisters, her young son, and her people from the encroaching Portuguese people. The series follows her throughout her tumultuous time during her brother’s reign and her eventual ascension to the throne.

Njinga was a ruler during a difficult time in Africa, as powers had to contend not only with other warring African nations but with the appearance of Europeans who were becoming increasingly greedy as they wanted to control the slave trade to make their exportation of Africans to the colonies easier. But in the 37 years that Njinga ruled, she demonstrated an impressive ability to understand cultures different from her own, to manipulate men for her causes, and to preserve her people at a high personal cost to herself.

The series sometimes seems more drama than a documentary as it contains long sequences recreating Njinga’s reign. It raises the question of why they didn’t simply make a narrative series or film about her life rather than adding the handful of talking head interviews.

The most exciting commentary comes from Queen Diambi Kabatusuila, the modern Woman King of the Bakwa Luntu People. Her ability to provide information about African nations’ spiritual and cultural practices is invaluable to the docuseries.

I wish the series had provided more information on its sources. Perhaps it’s just because I’m a historian, but I’m curious about what sort of records exist from Njinga’s life and if any of them are written by her specifically. This could easily have been incorporated into the interview segments or the narration.

While the recreations of Njinga’s life might somewhat take away from the documentary approach, it does result in a very entertaining depiction of the ruler’s life. Adesuwa Oni gives a stellar performance as the queen, whether she’s ruthlessly leading troupes on the battlefield or reeling from losing a loved one. Her performance makes the whole series come together and keeps these recreated scenes from being cheesy.

Is African Queens: Njinga worth watching?

African Queens: Njinga is an excellent first season for what will hopefully become a long and successful show that will expose audiences to many female historical figures they’re unfamiliar with.

It’s crucial for us, both as historians and as storytellers, to expand our knowledge beyond the same worn figures we know and to learn about the fascinating people from all over the world who made a difference in the lives of their nations. African Queens: Njinga might only serve as an introduction to the figure of Njinga and not provide any sturdy analysis, but it’s an introduction that’s well worth having.

What did you think of African Queens: Njinga Season 1? Comment below.

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