The African Accent and the Colonial Ear

In Western films set in Africa, misrepresentations of spoken language can harmfully homogenize the cultural nuances of diverse nations.
Maxine Sibihwana

The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006).

In 2007, Forest Whitaker won the Academy Award for his performance as Ugandan dictator and army general Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006), becoming only the fourth Black man to win Best Actor.  Lauded as the role of his career, critics praised his “full-throated, technically accomplished” performance (The Guardian, 2006), and his ability to “seize the space and show us how he can rage” (The New Yorker, 2006).

“Full-throated” the performance was indeed, but it was a throat filled with an accent that neither sounded like Amin’s nor any person from Koboko, northern Uganda, where the general was born. “Technically accomplished,” but the accent, directed by dialect coach Robert Easton, was neither technical, nor accomplished. Linguistically speaking, Whitaker’s accent is riddled with instances of the US English rhotic R pronunciation (which is pronounced at the back of the throat without a trill), and a combination of vowel pronunciations from across East Africa, none of which were present in the real Amin's speech patterns. Even though Easton encouraged Whitaker to spend time speaking to locals in Kampala, a person from Kampala does not sound like a person from Koboko.

With the increase in roles for Black actors between the 1990s and today, more and more films are being produced that captures contemporary Black stories. From Marlon Riggs and Julie Dash to Jordan Peele and Janine Nabers, the rise of Black contemporary storytellers in Western cinema, and the heightened yearning from audiences for representation, has created more: that is to say, more Black romcoms and thrillers, Black-owned production companies, Black blockbuster franchises, and more diaspora-focused storytelling. And more often than not, these Africa-specific roles are posited as major Oscar-worthy roles for the Western Black actor, which has led to contemporary film being littered with inaccurate portrayals of African dialects, accents and languages: examples include Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda (2004), Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation (2015), Will Smith in Concussion (2015), and most recently, Viola Davis in The Woman King (2022). 

Language, voice, and tone are vital parts of storytelling—they allow audiences to build a sense of place and immerse themselves in the setting—but they are frequently undervalued by filmmakers and audiences, which leads to misrepresentation. Dialogue is not the only thing communicated by words, but also identity, culture, and history. Yet in Western films set in Africa, language often feels rough and forced, with wide, unnatural mouth movements, almost embodying the stereotypical “primitive” image of the continent. Despite African countries, cultures, and languages being very much real and diverse, the homogenizing of African accents in these movies tragically shows how the world sees us: as indistinguishable or fictional nations, with interchangeable and expendable accents. Film shapes and is shaped by culture and society, and accepting these inaccuracies as film canon comes at the expense of the cultural histories they claim to portray.

Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2005).

In 1896, British filmmaker Robert W. Paul, a pioneer of narrative film, sent a cameraman to Egypt to record actualities,1 an early form of documentary short film. The following year, the Lumière film catalog included items on Egypt and more regions in North Africa, as well as items on the so-called “Ashanti Negroes.” These films are woven into the fabric of the history of cinema, as African people became subjects of colonial documentary, but people of African descent were rarely allowed to partake in cinema during the age of the talkies, aside from appearing as extras or being represented by a white actor in blackface. Today, big roles for Black actors are a regular, but not plenteous, occurrence, and the chance to play an important role worthy of critics’ attention means taking on a Hattie McDaniel-level role—a mammy, a slave, a dictator, a gangster or a person deep-fried in trauma—already boxed in by stereotypes, forced to recreate another.

With white actors, their stereotypes are clear satire, while their authentic portrayals of accents are taken seriously—African accents are not afforded that luxury. Part of the authenticity and grit we’ve come to love in Good Will Hunting (1997) owes to the fact that both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck speak in accents native to South Boston—which successfully shows the importance of class distinctions, Will’s intellectual ability despite his “rough” surroundings, and rooting him in his neighborhood and background even as he progresses to new places and opportunities. Part of the joy of watching Mary Poppins (1964), is the grating sound of Dick Van Dyke’s bizarre “Cockney” accent. Often noted as one of the worst accents in film history, Van Dyke’s character sounded like he came from New Jersey, Australia, but Poppins is a children’s comfort film filled with magic, so audiences are already prepared to suspend their disbelief.  Language, voice, and tone are vital parts of storytelling, but somehow caricature-like portrayals of African accents still manage to win Oscars, while Dick Van Dyke’s “Cockney” failure is an actor’s cautionary tale.

This speaks to a larger issue: the hierarchy of occidental languages over languages from the global south, the (lack of) knowledge of African dialects, and a general laziness toward the research required to thoughtfully and effectively learn regional African accents. Alongside my research for this article, I also spoke to Djeneba Bagayoko, a linguist who specializes in African languages and is currently working on a book exploring the similarities in Ebonics and continental languages. When we discussed Beasts of No Nation—no nation indeed, as the film is set in an “unspecified” West African country—Djeneba pointed out the prevalence of guttural sounds and line delivery in a lower vocal pitch.

While having a lower-pitched voice is completely within the rights of directors and actors to be a stylistic choice for a character, its unfortunate prevalence goes beyond artistic prerogative and seems closer to laziness or ignorance. Viola Davis’s accent in The Woman King is also delivered in a lower register, with an emphasis on guttural sounds and a sprinkling of that American English rhotic R that would not be present in a West African accent during the 1820s. Winston Duke’s accent in Black Panther (2018) also features guttural sounds, a low pitch, and even Nigerian facets of speech (adding “o” as a standalone sound at the end of sentences), despite the fact that the fictional nation of Wakanda is supposedly located in southeast Africa. Bagayoko rightly asked, “Why, when it comes to Africa, are we all lumped together?” Reducing Western and Southern African accents down to hard, low-pitched noises positioned at the back of the throat perpetuates the idea that African languages are too “other” for any attention to detail. The frequency with which we see this technique reiterates the view of Africans as homogenized and underdeveloped—a colonial perspective.

Black Panther (Ryan Cooker, 2018).

Not only do Africans have regional accents within the continent, but we have regional accents and dialects within our countries’ borders. This was apparently the thought process behind giving Winston Duke a “Niger-Congo accent” instead of a Xhosa accent like the rest of his castmates in Black Panther. Dialect coach Beth McGuire and director Ryan Coogler wanted to show how Duke’s character, living up in the mountains, would speak differently given the lack of interaction with the rest of the Wakandan tribes. While this is a good idea in theory, this should have been demonstrated with differing regional accents within the same borders. I’m Ugandan; my mum comes from Hoima, which is a region in the west closer to the DRC, and my dad comes from Tororo, a region in the east closer to the Kenyan border. Even with their differing accents based on their languages and proximity to neighboring countries, they still sound like they’re at least from the same region of Africa. 

The focus on deep voices and rough or unfamiliar sounds falls under what Bagayoko dubs “the colonial ear.” The colonial ear tells audiences not to dwell on the specifics of language, dialect, and accents of an entire region and diaspora of people—whether accurately portrayed or not—but rather to focus on the seemingly more important “bigger picture”: the overall story, the artistic direction, the poetic license. An African story told through an American lens. When we dwell on the minutiae, the inaccuracies, we seemingly lose the escapism or the satisfaction of seeing African stories told. We lose sight of film being works of fiction, entirely in the hands of the subjective choices of performers, directors, producers, budgets, and bottom lines.

It’s not important that Don Cheadle inexplicably went to South Africa to immerse himself in the culture as preparation for his role in Hotel Rwanda. There is a scene where his character has to show the Hutu military forces the list of names in the hotel, and Cheadle says, “We don’t hev the names.” This pronunciation of the word “have” is more common in southern African countries than eastern ones. It is important to note that the dialect coach on the film is Fiona Ramsay, a South African. 

In fact, our languages, accents, and dialects are so unimportant, they become punch lines. Part of the comedic value of Coming to America (1988) are the accents and lack of social cues of African king Akeem and his attendant Semmi. Their “Zamundan” accents overindulge in non-rhotics, widened mouths, overexaggerated vowel sounds and vocal pitch, and intonation contours that seem to go up and down on every word. Granted, Zamunda is another fictional country so this broadness likely is a stylistic choice. But the “Zamundan” accent has plagued film since the ’80s; it’s in Alexandra Shipp’s accent as Storm in the X-Men franchise, Kerry Washington’s accent in The Last King of Scotland, and Jeremy Tardy’s accent in Dear White People (2017). 

Farewell Amor (Ekwa Msangi, 2020).

But we should zero in on the minutiae—at least when it comes to African accents. This is because Western cinema and media stereotypes about Africa tend to generalize African communities and treat all African cultures as monolithic. Focusing on the details of our languages and how we speak allows room for nuance, understanding, and acts to counterbalance the misrepresentations. Sociologist Josef Gugler rightly states that “audiences that have little factual information about Africa all too readily assume that fiction and fact coincide.”2 While contemporary Western films are mostly fiction, the fictitious aspects should be in the story and not the cultures of historically oppressed people. 

One of the few contemporary films that actually focuses on a region, and embodies it well, is Farewell Amor (2020). Director Ekwa Msangi, as a person with close proximity to the community in her story, noted the importance of finding actors during the casting process who could actually do an Angolan accent. And in a film that is so rooted in issues of place, immigration, family and cultural identity, the actors’ accents go a long way in providing crucial context for the story. Watching Farewell Amor was my first instance of experiencing such a level of care and attention to detail in a film centering our stories, and that film only came out three years ago.

It is my hope to find more instances of Western cinema treating Africa as an equal in the creative process; it seems brazenly lazy if not discriminatory that with all the resources available in a film’s research and development, the time is not taken to explore the facets and variations of an African-set story. “Africa has over 2000 languages, and you want me to believe that they all sound the same?” Bagayoko pointedly asks. You could argue that Coming To America and Farewell Amor are vastly different films, one whose comedy is founded on caricatures and the other requiring proper research into a milieu. But culture and film have a symbiotic relationship, so filmmakers and audiences will benefit from African-set stories that have well-researched aspects of language. With a focus on a specific region, employing linguists of African heritage who specialize in African dialects and languages, cinema will achieve the cultural nuance and integrity that it’s lacking. Give Black actors room to be more, and give Africa the chance to show that it always has been more.

1. Roberts, A. (1987). "Africa on Film to 1940." History in Africa, 14, 189-227.

2. Gugler, J. (2010). "African Films in the Classroom." African Studies Review, 53(3), 1-17.

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