Photo illustration by Kaushik for OkayAfrica.
Are African Accents Hard to Portray in Hollywood?
In foreign media, African accents often don’t hit the mark – mangled, erased, or just undercooked. According to these experts, it’s not that simple.
From 1947 until 1972, the Herald Tribune Form organized a series of debates between students from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. They were titled “The World We Want” and the premise was “What happens when you gather together 30 bright teenagers from across the world and ask them to discuss education, women’s rights, and world peace?”
Teenagers from Korea, Japan, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Israel, Egypt, Brazil, Argentina, and more were invited as delegates to speak on these issues. Even though the British had colonized over 50 countries by the 1950s and English had spread wider and faster than any language, the audience and even the delegates were surprised to find English was tonally and contextually different when spoken by non-English people.
Viewers at the time watched Africans debate on topics they were passionate about and understood them without needing subtitles. The crisp unfamiliar diction also made the arguments they made more poignant because people were able to relate to people they thought of as “other.” Their accents added to the value of the programmes watched.
There are so many different cultures and socioeconomic forces that have an effect on how languages are used, resulting in a wide variety of accents throughout the globe. For this reason, accents can be mimicked but not taught the same way language can.
Through this lens of history, African accents portrayed Africans more authentically. Today, especially in Hollywood, the depiction of African accents is often a caricature, permeating media entertainment and it begs the question on who should be held responsible. Is the industry-wide nonchalance as a result of huge studios not seeing it as a real problem?
The First Sound on Film
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, formal public speaking in the United States was predominantly characterized by song-like intonation, protracted and trembling vowels, and a strong reverbance. Beginning in the early 20th century, American actors received formal training that was specifically designed to prepare them to mimic upper-class British accents onstage.
The upper class and entertainment industry in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries popularly used the Transatlantic or mid-Atlantic accent, which was a standardized consciously learned accent that combined the most prestigious features of both American and British English, particularly received pronunciation. It is not a native or regional accent as there are no countries in that region.
Since the first feature film with sound, The Jazz Singer, was released in 1927, sound-on-film would soon become the standard for movies which would grow to include full dialogue. By the early 1930s, the talkies were a global sensation.
It wasn’t long after sound was introduced to film that the industry executives imposed the transatlantic accent as the industry standard. Films like All About Eve (1950), Citizen Kane (1941), and It Happened One Night (1934) are perfect time capsules of the era, as everyone in the films spoke with a transatlantic accent even though the films were set in different places.
The Evolution of Accents
Accents change with time because language is constantly evolving. In addition to social and political development, a community's accent may also change since speech sounds make up a dynamic, self-regulatory system. When a shift is social or political, we may say that it is external; when it is linguistic or phonetic, it is internal.
The speech of pre-teens or teenagers, who want to express their individuality independently of the older generation, is typically where changes first appear in a dialect. Following the end of World War II, the use of the transatlantic accent in media and everyday life began to decline.
As regional accents started coming up in films, stories that best suited them were shot. In time, those stories explored foreigners—fictional and historical but when care and thought aren’t put into that aspect of a film, what you get are caricatures. Even when the stories are complex and human, a person not familiar with that culture will see or hear a stereotype and form perceptions based on that.
One of the earliest depictions of this is Zoltán Korda’s Sanders of the River (1935), set in colonial Nigeria. It feels like a white, voyeuristic passion project, more than anything. Even the locals speak in the aforementioned in the British-American intonation, thus erasing their own native accents.
Nina Mae McKinney as Lilongo and Paul Robeson as Bosambo, both in the movie Sanders of the River. The film is directed by Zoltan Korda.Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images.
With the transatlantic accent now obsolete, modern films and television series like Hotel Rwanda (2005), Phat Girlz (2006), Concussion (2015), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), and Bob Hearts Abisola (2019 - present) haven’t totally fared better. On the surface, these media properties are good and important but fail to resonate with certain audiences because the accents are not always accurate, especially when portrayed by people that are not from any African country.
Why Are African Accents Still Flawed in Hollywood Media?
CONCUSSION - Official Trailer (HD)www.youtube.com
Is the inaccuracy in African accents a sign of ignorance rather than incompetence? Is there something unique about African accents that makes it hard to portray for some actors? Or are American and European accents fundamentally different from African ones that make them harder to nail?
Sarah Valentine, an actor who starred in Top of the Lake and Whina, and an accent/dialect coach says that personally, if she has to learn an accent, she would do a really deep dive into it to be as authentic as possible. “All accents have a uniqueness and it comes down to the actor as to whether they have a good coach and the time to learn the accent and a director that knows the accent well enough that they will ensure that when the accent is used it is authentic all the way through.”
This is evident in Marvel’s Black Panther which had a main dialect coach, and four others to work personally with the cast, and help them get what accent people in a fictional country in East Africa should sound like.
“As an actor, depending on the budget of the production and the lead-up to the shoot, ideally, you want to spend as much time on getting the accent right prior to the shoot. When learning an accent, you’re asking somebody to change out the interior of their mouth to be able to create completely different sounds, and that takes practice,” she added.
A generic African accent is one that is characterized by no central vowel sounds, diphthongs pronounced and monophthongs, sharp consonants, and unique intonations. The erroneous use of African accents drives misconceptions about Africa, especially its size, its people, and their cultures.
Films like Black Panther, its sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and The Woman Kingdon’t fall prey to this mistake. They are heavily fictionalized with the former set in a fictional African country and the later mentioning that not everyone in the all-woman army is from the same kingdom.
Black Panther uses isiXhosa and a vague East African accent, while The Woman King has characters that sound have intonations unique to other characters around them.
Other films like, His House and Nanny, go around this by having ethnic actors who are given free range by directors invested in their respective cultures. However, the fault may not always lie with production.
Moshood Fattah, an actor on the stage and screen believes that getting accurate accents can depend on the story being told, the character being portrayed and the directing style. Certain stories or films put more emphasis on what is said than how it is being said.
“It's usually advised especially for elevated characters to speak in unaccented English because tribal accents are usually seen as comical & could pose a problem/distraction when the audience of a diverse ilk,” he said.
“For theatre, you can learn to speak the lines in a play in a particular accent and shut out after—I did this playing [Mahatma] Gandhi in a play. Rehearsals also mean you have the time to go as hard as you want on the accent. In film it's scarier, especially when the accent isn't something you already know and you're shooting out of sequence. Playing an Igbo character in Far From Home, I didn't have an accent coach nor did I have access to the entire script before shooting started— so I knew not to play it with a strong Igbo accent. So it's also a question of what kind of character you are portraying, is it the type that you have to be thick with the accent or one you can paint lightly.”
In this handout photo provided by The Weinstein Compan, Idris Elba is seen on the set of "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom."Photo by Keith Bernstein/The Weinstein Company via Getty Images.
In cases where the actor has to do most of the heavy lifting, a professional dialect coach can be invaluable. They oversee more than accents because they work with actors to create a character's voice and speech right down to impediments the character may have.
Besides the stereotypes that bad accents reinforce, a bad accent invokes an uncanny valley feeling, preventing viewers familiar with the region being represented from truly suspending disbelief and immersing themselves in the story.
Speaking on the inaccuracy, Tony Sebastian Ukpo, a film writer and director said the effects of inaccurate accents depend on the viewers. “If they [viewers] are familiar with it [accent], or it is their accent, it takes away a certain level of credibility from the viewing experience, even if the acting and direction is good.”
Ukpo, who is a mentor for the Sundance Institute’s Collab filmmaking program, believes that inaccurate accents present a tangible barrier to immersion when viewing any film, but can only be disregarded if the story is captivating enough.
The movie world today presents stories that connect more profoundly, unencumbered by stereotypes, thanks to devoted dialect coaches and performers immersing themselves in the intricacies of speech.
The evolution of accents reflects the complex interplay between cultural shifts and linguistic dynamics, and the need for authenticity. The debates held at Indiana University Bloomington in the 1950s occurred at a period when the globe was only starting to hear the opinions and voices of other nations thanks to advancements in technology.
In the seven decades between then and now, there have been efforts to actively portray different people and cultures but those efforts are often forgotten because it is the bare minimum.
Accents represent history, identity, and the nuanced web of human expression in a more profound way than simple voice inflections. The transition from exaggerated depictions to actual authenticity in accents emphasizes how important accuracy in character portrayal is.
Accents continue to serve as a potent indicator of how committed filmmakers are to preserving the core of each tale they portray as films continue to span cultures and themes.
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