‘African Queens: Njinga’: Captivating Netflix series traces a crafty, deadly rise to power

17th century warrior queen takes command in four-part documentary with a bit of historical context and a lot of exciting drama.

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The initial “African Queens” series is dominated by dramatizations starring Adesuwa Oni as the 17th century leader Njinga.

Netflix

Way back in the early days of television, there was a series on CBS called “You Are There,” hosted by Walter Cronkite. The gimmick had Cronkite anchoring a newscast about historical events, with real-life CBS news reporters in their modern-day, 20th century garb showing up at historical events to report on the sidelines and interview actors who portrayed the likes of Plato, Anne Boleyn, Harriet Tubman and Paul Revere in their respective time periods. Cronkite would kick off every episode by saying, “All things are as they were then, except …” — and then an omniscient narrator would say: “... YOU ARE THERE.”

I was reminded of “You Are There” while screening the Netflix four-part documentary series “African Queens: Njinga,” an enlightening and captivating and invaluable deep dive into the life and times of Njinga, the 17th century warrior queen who ruled what is now known as Angola. Not that the series invokes the technique of dropping modern-day correspondents into an historical setting, but “African Queens: Njinga” does take a rather unorthodox (though not unprecedented) approach in that about 80% of the series is a straightforward historical drama, with a fine cast portraying Njinga and other key figures from the time, and the other 20% consists of traditional, talking-head, on-camera interviews with scholars and historians who provide rich context and keep us up to speed as we transition from scene to scene.

Narrated by executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith and benefiting greatly from the writing of Peres Owino and NneNne Iwuji, “African Queens: Njinga” at times feels a little bit like homework — but it’s a subject well worth our attention, and a lesson plan executed in well-paced, entertaining fashion. (Season Two of “African Queens” will focus on Cleopatra.)

‘African Queens: Njinga’

Untitled

A four-part series available Wednesday on Netflix.

Episode One takes us to 1617 and the kingdom of Ndongo in West Africa (filming actually took place in South Africa), where the Princess Njinga (Adesuwa Oni) is working on her fighting technique under the watchful eye of her father, King Ngola (Thabo Bopape), who favors Njinga over all his grown children, including his sons. As the anthropologist and writer Luke Pepera explains, “The Portuguese have already been in Ndongo for 50 years” as a maritime superpower, periodically capturing and enslaving people to work on sugar plantations in Brazil. Says University of Chicago Assistant Professor Mary Hicks: “Their mission is really twofold. One is to Christianize the people there, and other is to really expand the territory of the King of Portugal.”

After the king is killed by one of his own generals, the king’s son Mbande (Philips Nortey), half-brother to Njinga, stages a horrific and bloody coup to kill all potential heirs to the throne, including Njinga’s own infant son. Though devastated and nearly paralyzed with grief, Njinga remains allies with the ruthless and bullheaded Mbande, for the good of the people. She persuades Mbande to send her on a mission to form an alliance with a group of mercenary warriors who are known as the Imbangla and are led by the fierce but practical Kasa (Thabo Rametsi), who agrees to the alliance. This is the first of many representations of Njinga as a sophisticated and practical tactician.

Although the jazzy score and sometimes melodramatic and anachronistic dialogue occasionally take us out of the moment (“Peace isn’t even on the table yet,” Njinga notes during a negotiating session with the Portuguese), “African Queens” keeps us involved and heats up the often violence-soaked drama in subsequent episodes. Njinga spends three years far from home as she and her loyal warriors bond with the Imbangla and disrupt the slave trade routes. Back home in the Kingdom of Ndongo’s capital city of Kabasa, the beleaguered and desperate King Mbande sees his people constantly under siege and eventually flees the city as it falls to the Portuguese. After Njinga successfully negotiates a truce with the Portuguese that will help ensure Ndongo’s survival, she returns home a conquering hero, captivating the people and earning their respect on a level Mbande has never known.

When Mbande dies, he leaves behind a 7-year-old son. Until the boy is capable of taking over, Njinga is declared Queen Regent — and in the most chilling scene in the entire series, Njinga has her nephew’s throat slit, thus eliminating the heir to the throne, just as Mbande had killed her own son. Njinga’s power grows as she captures the queen of the neighboring kingdom of Matamba and declares herself the ruler of Ndongo and Matamba. She secured an independent kingdom for her people and reigned for some 37 years.

With a steady stream of historical reportage from historians and writers sprinkled throughout, along with helpful maps and graphics, “African Queens: Njinga” is a well-edited series, as we toggle back and forth between the documentary interviews and the fictional scenes, which feature solid production design even though this is clearly not the biggest budget series in the Netflix canon. Njinga gets her due as one of the most formidable powerful warrior-rulers the world has known.

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