The idea that Will Smith speaks with an African accent in his new movie Concussion is a problem in and of itself.
There’s no such thing as an African accent. Ghanaians speak different pidgin English than Nigerians do, and Liberians’ intonations and cadences don’t sound anything like how the Congolese or the Senegalese speak English. All of this leads back to that pesky fact (which some Westerners have trouble grasping) that Africa is a continent, not a country. Every group puts its own spin on the King’s English.
Now, by the looks of the trailer, Will Smith did his thing in Concussion (wouldn’t it be cool if both he and Spike Lee got Academy Awards on the same night?). In Concussion, Smith plays real-life Nigerian-born physician Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered that two NFL players had severe brain disease as a result of the head bashings they endured while playing professional football.
Omalu was not only born in Nigeria but also went to college and medical school there before coming to the U.S. for additional schooling and to practice medicine (he also works as a college professor teaching medicine). So Smith needed to pick up the accent that Nigerians have when they speak English.
Smith did OK. He sounds like most Americans sound when they’re trying to impersonate an African. That generic African accent that Don Cheadle used in Hotel Rwanda, that Denzel Washington used in Cry Freedom and that Jennifer Hudson used in Winnie.
Nigerians got on Twitter and weighed in on Smith’s accent on a scale of “Good job” to “Wetin e dey talk?” (or “What is he talking about?”—and I made up the parameters of that scale). Check out the marks they gave Smith below. They made jokes and converged on the idea that the “generic African accent” Americans use isn’t going anywhere.
In all, it’s wonderful to see a Nigerian’s work and contributions to American medicine and professional sports being chronicled and saluted on the big screen.
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features video interviews with scarily insightful people. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.