Ethosheia Hylton Talks … African Queens: Njinga

From Executive Producer Jada Pinkett Smith comes a new documentary series exploring the lives of prominent and iconic African Queens.

The first season covers the life of Njinga, the complex, captivating, and fearless 17th-century warrior queen of Ndongo and Matamba, in modern-day Angola. 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.

Afua Hagan spoke to director Ethosheia Hylton about telling Njinga’s story and blending documentary and drama elements for the small screen.

Your latest project African Queens: Njinga is streaming now on Netflix. How did you get involved in the project?

My agent sent the project through. As soon as I saw the name African Queens: Njinga, I wanted to be a part of it. I got that frisson of excitement I always get when a project excites me.

How familiar were you with the story of Njinga?

I had heard of Njinga years earlier when I lived in Brazil. However, I knew little about her. Once I became a part of the series, I was able to really delve into Njinga’s story.

How did you make sure you became steeped in her story to be able to tell it?

I’ve always loved history and research, so the opportunity to research an African Queen extensively was a joy. The resources available were invaluable to fully immersing myself in the project. Nutopia had a relationship with historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton who are experts on Njinga and West Africa, so we attained lots of information through them. Weekly Zooms with historian John Thornton, literature, artefacts and documents were all readily available. So I spent a lot of time researching everything encompassing the story, her life, West Africa, Angola, and the Portuguese. I fell in love with Njinga. I wanted to pay homage to her story and felt compelled to tell it.

L-R Chipo Kureya as Kambu, Adesuwa Oni as Njinga, Eshe Asante as Ndambi and Marilyn Nnadebe Funji – African Queens, Netflix

How involved were you in casting, and what were you looking for from your actors?

I love casting. It’s one of my favourite parts of pre-production so I’m always heavily involved from the beginning. Having spent months researching Njinga and her story, I knew what I was looking for in the actors. Authentic, natural performances were key. I wanted the actors to bring their own flare, personality and relatable life experiences to the roles. I wanted the audience to feel connected and fully invested in these characters, so an actor that could bring truth and authenticity to each role in their performance was important to me.

Tell us about bringing the character of Njinga and the country of Ndngo to life in a real way …

Once we had our cast, I sent out a reading and watch list for them to prepare for the shoot. I didn’t want them to reply solely on the internet for their research to fully grasp the world I wanted to create. I worked closely with our production designer Warren Gray and costume designer Dihantus Engelbracht, swapping ideas and collaborating. I was led by the notion that Njinga and her ancestors fought for their land and were a proud nation. I wanted to reflect this in every aspect of mise en scène. I really wanted to portray Angola’s rich and vibrant landscape on screen. This rich culture and land that the Portuguese wanted so badly. [I wanted] to show the Kabasa and Ndongo as the beautiful kingdom that they were. For Njinga, it was important to have a rounded portrayal. Yes, she was a fierce and fearless warrior, but she was also a woman, a mother, sister and wife. When Adesowa Oni (Njinga) came on board we both had a joint interest in truthfully conveying all the dimensions that make up Njinga’s persona. It was the same with all the characters, Mbande, Fungi and Kambu. Three-dimensional characters were what we strived for.

The subject of enslaving people is broached in this series. How did you work on that with the actors to maintain the authenticity whilst acknowledging the trauma that goes along with it?

I wanted to approach this part of our history in a nuanced, sensitive way. I’ve experienced the traumas of seeing the brutality of slavery on screen and didn’t want to repeat it. For one, the enslaved wouldn’t be naked and I wanted the camera to focus on the emotions on their faces in bold, intimate close-ups and capture the details rather than the egregious acts which we are so accustomed to seeing. The enslaved were South African supporting artists. It was important to me to talk through the context of the scenes thoroughly with them and identify what they were comfortable with. There was a desire from the cast and crew to be authentic yet respectful of one another during these scenes.

This is a docu-drama – how did you balance those two elements?

I directed the drama and Susanna Ward directed the interviews. I thought the writers balanced the two well with its dramatic beats and having the experts expand on the story in between the beats.

What conversations has the piece generated from audiences?

The series has sparked interesting conversations about other queens whose stories need to be told. Many people who I spoke to before and after the series aired had never heard of Queen Njinga and it has prompted audiences to research further and find out more for themselves. There is so much of our history which has been ignored, misrepresented and mistold. Now is the time to tell them from our perspective and our voices.

Which African Queen would you like to tackle next if you were given a chance?

Probably Yaa Asantewaa.

African Queens: Njinga poster

What’s made you sad, mad and glad this week

I just watched For Black Boys… this week and all 3 [of those words] and more describe how I felt after seeing the play. It was absolutely brilliant and left a cornucopia of emotions.

What are you watching right now?

Swarm and Animal Kingdom.

What are you reading right now?

Fire Rush by Jaqueline Crooks.

What are you listening to right now?

My Boarders (new series) playlist, a mixture of grime and drill tunes to get me in the mood.

The last thing you saw on stage?

For Black Boys – Ryan Calas Cameroon at the Apollo.

What’s on your bucket list?

More travelling! Kerala, India, Mozambique, every film I’ve ever dreamed of making and a series.

Celebrate someone else?

Little Simz.

Celebrate yourself …

I was once told I was too shy to make it as a director. In 2018 I was the first awardee of the Academy Gold Fellowship award for women.

Whose footsteps are you following in?

My mother’s. She’s always been an inspiration and encouraged me to dream big and go for whatever I want.

What’s next for you?

Boarders, a 6-part series for BBC3 created by Daniel Taylor. I’m also working on some of my own scripted films.

Where can we find African Queens?

African Queens: Queen Njinga is on Netflix globally now.


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