‘Njinga, Queen of Angola’: Masterpiece premiering at San Francisco Black Film Festival

by The People’s Minister of Information JR

Queen Njinga Mbandi of the Ndongo people is a legendary as well as charismatic figure in the pantheon of African world leaders and freedom fighters against colonialism. Having lived in the 17th century, she is one of few revolutionaries from this period whose name and legacy has stood the test of time.

Screewriter Isilda Hurst and director Sérgio Graciano brought this legendary matriarch to life in a beautiful cinematic way with their new film, “Njinga: Queen of Angola,” a masterpiece for anyone interested in African history, foreign cinema and good movies in general. The film was shot in Angola and Portugal, and the cinematography deserves awards.

It was a brave feat for the production company of Semba Comunicação to acquire and film a drama filled with courage, betrayal and intrigue so as to resurrect a revolutionary world leader from hundreds of years ago – without watering her down and adding a white savior to the mix. This must see film will be premiering in the Bay Area at the San Francisco Black Film Festival on Friday, June 12, 6 p.m., at the African American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton, San Francisco, in the Buriel Clay Theater.

But before it screens, check out the screenwriter, director and production company as we talk with them in an exclusive Q&A about this soon to be classic film.

M.O.I. JR: What made you want to make a movie about the legendary Queen Njinga?

Beginning in 1617 with the death of her father, King Kilwanji, Njinga led her kingdom in a 40-year struggle for freedom and independence against the Portuguese, who were capturing slaves for sugar cane plantations in Brazil.
Beginning in 1617 with the death of her father, King Kilwanji, Njinga led her kingdom in a 40-year struggle for freedom and independence against the Portuguese, who were capturing slaves for sugar cane plantations in Brazil.

Isilda Hurst: More than a concern. We Angolans have the duty to, without prejudice, know our past and in this case the historical figures that are the basis for the Angolan identity. This work of documentation and investigation of national historical figures has been done in order to rescue the values and contribute to a bigger awareness and better self-esteem of the Angolan people.

In Njinga’s case, and because her personality had already surpassed the chronological and geographical barriers, she’s a figure that no longer belongs only to the Angolans. She belongs to the world – and there was the need to take her out of the dusty scholarly books and take her beyond that, towards the future and the moving pictures.

We Angolans have the duty to, without prejudice, know our past and in this case the historical figures that are the basis for the Angolan identity.

M.O.I. JR: How long did it take for you to research the story? How did you do the research?

Isilda Hurst: The research around Njinga was an enormous plunge in the universe of the social and natural sciences. This was a figure who lived in the 17th century, and we had to bring her to life in 2014.

We had to not only get to know her private and public life as well as the time that she lived in from the anthropological, political, military and social standpoint. We had to look at her from all angles, in detail and, at the same time, in perspective.

We dedicated about two and a half years to reading everything there was about Njinga so that we could confirm and cross check all sources and existing publications. Semba Comunicação also promoted an international congress about Queen Njinga in which guests came from all around the world, from the Vatican to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), including researchers from Brazil, France and Angola.

The objective was to gather and exchange information and knowledge. In this conference we were able to listen to several versions from the oral traditions from the heir of the Ndongo throne, BubaNvulaDala. We also made several trips across Njinga’s itineraries and we lived with the Ndongo court and royalty for three days so that we could absorb all the norms of the traditional monarchy.

The research around Njinga was an enormous plunge in the universe of the social and natural sciences. This was a figure who lived in the 17th century, and we had to bring her to life in 2014.

Afterwards, it was a matter of transforming and adapting reality into fiction. We’ve created locations, a plot, characters, all with the help of historical consultants who gave their precious inputs in several areas of knowledge. It took three years to complete and present this project. There was a lot of material left out of the movie but we got to know Njinga like never before.

M.O.I. JR: How did you cast for the many parts? What did y’all look for?

Sérgio Graciano: It was a very difficult casting. Njinga is a very strong character and it was not easy to make her come to life. After we looked for a long time, we found Lesliana Pereira who did a remarkable job, being very dedicated, enriching this role.

As for the rest of the cast members, we were very careful with body types, their physicality and charisma. Casting is a complicated process and, at the same time, actors don’t show themselves fully at that moment. In this case, we had to have a very good sense not of who they were but what they could become. At the end we were very happy with the result.

M.O.I. JR: How are you promoting this film? Will it have a theatrical release? When and where?

Semba Comunicação: The movie already premiered commercially in Angola, Portugal and Brazil.

M.O.I. JR: How long did it take to shoot the film? Where did y’all shoot?

Sérgio Graciano: Shooting took about nine weeks. We filmed in the Kwanza River (Luanda, Angola), Malanje (Angola) and in Portugal.

M.O.I. JR: What film projects are you working on now?

Semba Comunicação: Right now we’re going through several projects that we have in motion, but our historical figures, some of them of mythical stature, are within our areas of interest.

M.O.I. JR: How could people stay in touch with you about what’s going on with the film?

Semba Comunicação: The best way to keep up with our projects is to follow our web page (www.semba-c.com) or our different projects on Facebook.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com.