• Industry

Nicole Amarteifio: African Women Have a New Voice

Nicole Amarteifio wants to change the narrative about Africa. The Ghanaian filmmaker started out doing that with An African City, a series inspired by Sex and the City but set in Ghana. It shows African women who are fashionable, independent and empowered as they build careers, date and party in the capital city of Accra. The 39-year-old Amarteifio is now working on the third season of An African City, which will also be released in the United States in collaboration with Essence Studios. We spoke to her from her home in Los Angeles, where she lives when not in Ghana.


What did you want to achieve with the show An African City?

I wanted to have a show that gave the original Sex and the City a run for its money. The show had Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte and we have Nana Yaa, Sade, Zainab, Ngozi and Makena, who are just as beautiful, sexy, witty and smart and just as fashionable – or even more fashionable. There is something to that. I felt it was important that women from the African continent were viewed as unique and different but also relatable. There is this report that has been done by the USC Norman Lear Center, that tackles African representation in US television. For one month, they monitored when and where “Africa” was mentioned in US news and entertainment shows. It found that only 30% of African characters on US television are women, and when they speak, they only speak ten words or less. Well, in An African City, the women are the center stage of their stories…and they have agency as well as a voice. That’s what I wanted to achieve: we have a voice.

How did the idea for An African City come about?

I was born in Ghana, but my family and I moved to Westchester, New York when I was six years old. So, I was raised in New York. I was in 2nd grade when I noticed that my classmates had a very backward view of the continent and it did not make me feel good. At that age, I did not know how to articulate what I was feeling but I knew that it did not feel right. When I was 12, we were studying the AIDS epidemic and a classmate of mine said that the solution to AIDS was to just blow up the continent of Africa. He had probably heard that from a grownup, which is pretty sad. It was hurtful. But right there, I had this feeling that I had to do something about it, but I did not know what that was. Then fast forward to when I was working for the World Bank in Washington DC and I felt like development agencies were part of the problem, because they were just constantly shoving out negative imagery of the continent. While I worked there and while recovering from a heartbreak, I went to visit my parents in Ghana. I watched Sex and the City at my parents’ home and ‘Voilá! This is it. I don’t know why this is it. But this is it.’ If I do a show that is Sex and the City set in Ghana, that will help counterbalance all these negative stories about the African continent.

You have five characters in the show. They have been abroad and come back to Ghana to live in Accra. Is that similar to your story?

Yes. It is my story. I was born in Ghana and moved to the United States and returned to Ghana in my early 20s. Then I went to grad school in the United States and returned to Ghana again in my early 30s. Throughout those returns home, I would date. My girlfriends were dating too, and we all had so many stories to tell and I knew they should not be kept a secret. They had to be shared with the world!

It is about African women, who are very sexually active. How was the show received in Africa, where the perception is that women are quite traditional?

That is the role of Christianity, but if you go back to our traditions, it is different. When I was married, our traditional Ghanaian ceremony – the families come together, and our elders are negotiating for each side of the family. My aunt who is 30 or 40 years older than me, is talking to me and the whole congregation about how my breasts now belong to my husband. That is very anti-feminism. Not good. But the things that can come out at these ceremonies about sex and the role of sex in marriages is very liberal. I think there is something to be said about that. I think that is actually the heart of who we truly are. I was a little bit concerned at first, but the episode that really took off was episode four in season one where Sade is trying to get her vibrator out of customs. That is when we saw our fan base grow significantly both in and outside of the African continent. That says a lot.

What are you working on right now?

I am so lucky. I have a lot of things in development. An African City has brought so much my way, which I say to encourage others: If you have an idea, do it, because that is what opens doors. Don’t just sit on your dream and wait for someone to make it happen.

You work both in Los Angeles and Ghana. What made you decide to be working in both places?

I want to see Ghana’s film industry grow and obviously, Hollywood has done something right. Even in Ghana, Hollywood is everywhere. So many of the TV shows and films that we watch in Ghana started because of someone creative in Los Angeles. My goal is to brand Ghana and Africa differently and Hollywood obviously understands that kind of global branding.

What is it like working as a woman in the film industry in Ghana? Are you getting a lot of support and encouragement?

When I think about Ghana’s film industry, it is women that I think of. Before I became a filmmaker and just had a dream of An African City, there were so many women to look up to like Leila Djansi, Shirley Frimpong-Manso and I grew up with theatrical stories by Efua Sutherland and I remember seeing Akosua Busia in The Color Purple there are so many women in the Ghanaian film industry that I had to look up to and I am very grateful for that. Also, the US can learn from the industry in Ghana because in Ghana’s film industry there are so many #girlbosses and that should not be such a surprise anywhere in the world.

Why do you think that is?

I think it is because in the US there are so many structures in place that support White men. But in Ghana, we don’t have that structure and infrastructure. It is very fluid. So, if you are someone who is very ambitious and has a dream, you go for it and there is nothing really to stop you. There is some sexism, but I feel that women in America come across infrastructure that is historically in place to support White men. In Ghana, there is the infrastructure that simply supports the ambitious…just go for it.

Does that mean that you don’t have a lot of problems with equity there?

If I were an actress, there would definitely be people who would objectify me and even as a producer, but that is something that we see in the global industry as a whole. I am not sure I can speak for all women in Ghana because there may be women in the film business who have had different experiences, but that has not been my experience.

Do you think it makes it harder for you to make it in the business as a woman? And do you think there are more obstacles in Los Angeles?

I definitely feel that there are more obstacles in Los Angeles. Sometimes I even wonder why I am here. In Los Angeles, you take baby steps whereas in Ghana I feel like I can take giant steps with my projects. I look to Los Angeles because the budgets are bigger. In order to produce Ghanaian content with universal appeal, I want to make sure that the production values are higher and that means I would need bigger budgets. But if I had my way, I would just stay in Ghana. Ghana is where I am more creative, Ghana is where I see so many stories that haven’t been told before.

You have said that you would like to rewrite the narrative of Africa. How seriously do you take this? And are you collaborating with other women to make sure you tell many different stories?

I am very serious. It is the mission in all the work I do and all the work you will see from me in the future. I am in a writer’s group with African American women and women from different parts of the African continent and we all believe in that same goal and in diversifying our stories. I am also part of a book club where we read various African authors like Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, Yaa Gyasi, Afua Hirsch, Peace Medie, Ayesha Harruna Attah – and I read those stories always with a TV and film adaptation in mind. There are so many women doing such beautiful work and I do want to see their words – whether they are from scripts or from books – make it to the big screen.

You have said that there is a lot of miseducation about Africa – how would you like to see the world be educated?

I think the way US television executives write about the continent of Africa is terrible. It’s lazy. They don’t write from a place of knowledge; they write from a place ripe with stereotypes…as if they are still stuck in the time of Henry Morton Stanley. For example, I am so excited to tune into the next season of In Treatment, because I think Uzo Aduba is amazing. But I’m not familiar with the show, so I figured I would start from season one. I love the show, binge-watching it…until I get to season two, episode four. These two fictional characters go in on the continent of Africa, specifically Rwanda. You would think that the country of Rwanda had personally insulted someone’s mother the way the characters (and by characters, I mean, the writers) used valuable TV time to just insult the country. This is why I’m a TV producer, to fight this. I think TV viewers deserve that.

When I first started my film career, it was important to educate the world. I have learned since then that that is not my job. When I was a six-year-old Ghanaian Black girl in New York, I was constantly bombarded with negative images of the continent. My niece is now six years old and lives in Dallas, Texas, and I think about the negative images that she is getting about the African continent. So, I think my goal is rather to be the person who comes and says ‘no, there are some positive stories too’. So, I would like to fight those negative stories by presenting the positive stories too. It is not to educate the world. It is to educate the kids of African immigrants, who are in the States or Europe or wherever they are in the world.

Your film Before the Vows is about a couple, who creates an unconventional plan for a long and happy marriage. What was the source of this idea?

I wrote that script when I was getting married. My husband and I have a very conventional marriage but at the time I was very intrigued by the gender roles and expectations by our families and society and I wanted a film that questioned that from the point of view of the bride. She was basically saying ‘f…the rules.’ I thought it was important to see a woman who was challenging the societal norms on screen because I think that is what we should all be doing.


You have been called “the Shonda Rhimes of Ghana” How do you feel about this title?

It makes me feel great, but she told me once that my focus should be on being ‘the Nicole of Ghana’ and I’ll take that. I would not mind making some of the money that she makes though (laughs).

You were part of the film Indie Nation. Talk about what this taught you.

Who would not want to be part of a show produced by Forbes? (laughs)


What do you think having been living abroad – in the UK and the US has meant to your perspective on African women?

When I return home to Ghana, I am reminded to be so proud of who I am. There is something about returning that fills you with so much confidence, which is sometimes hard to find as a Black woman in the United States of America. My Ghanaian name is Naa Amerley and the ‘Naa’ gestures ‘royal respect’ and Amerley means I am the first-born girl in my family – these names remind me that I have meaning and that is pretty hard to find in the United States, so I love going back to Ghana and constantly being reminded of my worth.