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Lioness of Lisabi: A Black Girl Power Story

by Stephanie Shonekan, Art, Music, and Pop Culture, Contributing Editor

Reverberations of the assertion that Black Lives Matter have been heard and felt across the nation, on our street corners and in our communities, on college campuses, and in media coverage of global tragedies. What has become clear in much of the backlash against this groundswell is that the idea of a human hierarchy is a well-loved and fiercely preserved mentality that is sometimes couched in religion, capitalism, patriotism and imperialism. What is also clear is that the dominant narrative crafted by those in power and the mainstream media creates misconceptions of binaries where there are superior races and inferior races, white saviors and black victims, first world and under-developed world, strong men and weak women, and so on. These narratives seep into the very psyche of generations and have perpetuated stereotypes that have harmed humanity for centuries.

This complicated problem of false binaries has driven much of my research for many years. It impacts everything from ways of worship to definitions of beauty. So, when I became a mother, I began a search for films and books that broke away from the norm, that showed my black children their worth and their value. The Disney movies were fine but did nothing to lift their own sense of self-esteem. Finding very few children’s films with black protagonists, I decided to write a fictionalized screenplay for a children’s short film, a musical, based on the incredible life of Nigerian activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the mother and muse of afrobeat maestro Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Here was a woman who did not wait for the West to come in and save her people, a woman who embodied feminism before it was a global thing, one who understood the treachery of misogyny and the link between colonialism and traditional patriarchy.

Former students of mine from Columbia College Chicago — all creative activists in their own way — joined me in 2008 to do the work that resulted in this award-winning film. We were a tight-knit, multi-cultural, cross-generational team that included German-Romanian director Vlady Oszkiel, African American cinematographer Marcus McDougald, Kenyan lead actress Anita Kavuu, and myself, a Nigerian/Trinidadian writer and producer. Together, with a brilliant crew, we set out to tell a story, a counter-narrative that reminds us all that what we continue to encounter globally is a widespread and deeply entrenched system of patriarchy, which seems impossible to overturn. But we also hoped to showcase what can happen when an individual rises to the occasion and fights back against the system. Change is possible if we believe it and if we do it.

We present the entire film, “Lioness of Lisabi,” here on Praxis Center where we persistently discuss the issues that shape our troubled world. I hope that it helps to broaden knowledge and awareness of the stories to which we are so rarely exposed.