The 10 Best African Netflix Original Films
It can be a tricky preoccupation penciling down what exactly a Netflix Original means. Is it a project commissioned, and executive produced in house by the world’s biggest streaming giant? Yes. But it can also be applied to films funded independently and picked up later by Netflix at film festivals or licensed exclusively through other sources. In any case, films branded as Netflix Originals are usually branded with the streamer’s logo and distributed exclusively on the platform. In the spirit of Africa Day, we sat through all of the African Originals commissioned, produced or distributed by Netflix so far and bring you a list of the very best titles. In ascending order.
10. Òlòtūré (2020) – Nigeria
Set in Lagos, this bleak drama is the story of the eponymous character (Sharon Ooja) who is swept into a dangerous world of sex, big money and politics when she goes undercover to expose the underworld of human trafficking. Inspired by a journalist’s real-life account, Òlòturé is a damning expose that shines a light into a world where the quest for a better life is the ticket to an inescapable system that can only be described as slavery in its modern form. Director Kenneth Gyang trades minimalism and perceptiveness for big, ballsy social commentary.
9. Swallow (2021) – Nigeria
Swallow is an adaptation of the novel of the same title by Sefi Atta, one of Nigeria’s most influential contemporary writers. Directed by Netflix regular Kunle Afolayan from a screenplay penned by Atta herself, Swallow is a loose and imprecise narrative of a young working-class woman struggling to get by in eighties Nigeria, a period marked by economic downturn and a national identity crisis. Leisurely paced, with commentary about several social concerns littered through the running time, Swallow represents perhaps the most disciplined of Afolayan’s Netflix projects.
8. Silverton Siege (2022) – South Africa
In 1980, three armed activists of the ANC’s radical uMkhonto we Sizwe faction took a bank hostage in Silverton, Pretoria and demanded the release of the political prisoner known as Nelson Mandela. Mandla Walter Dube’s sleek fictional recreation of this historical episode makes for a crowd-pleasing actioner that only starts to derail once it lets its politics get in the way. When Dube focuses on the action sequences and the car chases and the gun battles, Silverton Siege is able to summon enough spectacle to keep viewers engaged.
7. I Am All Girls (2021) – South Africa
Inspired by real life events, this moody action thriller is a taut and satisfying take on the detective genre. A tormented special crimes investigator (Erica Wessels) who has some trouble detaching herself emotionally from work has a hunch following a series of kills, that the killer might be dropping hints to help authorities bring down a child sex trafficking syndicate. What she isn’t quite prepared to discover is the global extent of the reach of this criminal network as well as her own personal connection to the case.
6. The Boy who Harnessed the Wind (2019) – United Kingdom/Malawi
Beloved British-Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor makes a convincing directorial debut with this adaptation of the 2009 autobiography by William Kamkwamba, a Malawian teenager who through a combination of curiosity and ingenuity was able to solve a drought problem in his village. Ejiofor’s film, photographed beautifully walks the fine line between charm and grit, telling Kamkwamba’s grace to grace story but also expanding it to connect with the macroeconomic factors at play such as the Malawi government’s role in the food crisis of the early 2000s and the visible connection between desperation and crime.
5. Lionheart (2019) – Nigeria
Nollywood heavyweight Genevieve Nnaji made her directorial debut with this warm, delectable drama about a powerful Igbo transporting family navigating change in the business. Nnaji plays Adaeze, a young executive who must work with her uncle to rescue the family business when her father is sidelined by ill health. The story is one of succession, sexism and staying relevant amidst a shifting landscape. Lionheart’s unforced comic moments and pro-family values messaging would sit well in any one of the old school Nollywood films that made Nnaji a household name. But the film is also updated with world class production values that appeal to a global audience.
4. Catching Feelings (2018) – South Africa
Billed as South Africa’s first Nefllix Original film, Catching Feelings is a romantic drama bereft of the saccharine. Before taking on the spy thriller genre—also for Netflix—with the short-lived Original series Queen Sono, the duo of writer-director-star Kagiso Ledigo and actress Pearl Thusi pay homage to the early work of Woody Allen (cancelled these days). They play an upper middle-class married couple in post-apartheid Johannesburg who find their relationship tested by infidelity, money problems and especially, the arrival of a middle aged (white) visitor. Come for the charm. Stay for the bite that lingers long after the credits.
3. City of Joy (2018) – Democratic Republic of Congo/United States of America
Another story of American filmmakers parachuting to a troubled spot in Africa to extract a story? Not exactly. City of Joy is an illuminating look into the war-torn Eastern Congo as well as the efforts of survivors, natives and partners working to heal their community. Among them are Nobel prize winner Denis Mukwege, activist Christine Schuler-Deschryver and famed American playwright Eve Ensler. Through breathtaking stories of horror, survival and human resilience, director Madeleine Gavin presents the gated community, dubbed City of Joy, a safe place that serves women survivors of war.
2. My Octopus Teacher (2020) – South Africa
This surprise Oscar winner for best documentary feature directed by the duo of Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed is a feel-good fable of friendship between man and mollusk. The filmmaking duo follow the narrator and protagonist Craig Foster for a year as he forges an uncommon underwater relationship with a wild common octopus in a South African kelp forest. Ten years in the making, My Octopus Teacher was the perfect pandemic-era antidote, an otherworldly escape that seduces with its emotional weight, visual brilliance and one man’s curious and persevering spirit.
1. Atlantics (2019) – Senegal/France/Belgium
There was really no doubt as to which film would top this list. From the moment it landed at the Cannes film festival where it was received with rapturous reviews, Mati Diop’s shape shifting stunner announced itself as a modern masterpiece. And Netflix was lucky to snap it up. A mesmerizing saga of star-crossed lovers, Atlantics has a lot more on its mind though deploying dazzling visuals to tell a familiar story of the migrant crisis, a country’s economic woes and the crushing effects of capitalism but in dreamy new ways.