On Thursday, Disney will rerelease “The Lion King,” entirely redone in photorealistic computer animation. From the original animated film that debuted in 1994 to the 1997 Broadway musical performance, “The Lion King” remains one of the highest-grossing and longest-running shows in history. As of 2017, “The Lion King” musical has grossed more than $8.1 billion.
But what fans don’t know is that the story of “The Lion King” is not just a great story — it’s a true story.
As the movie once again captures the public imagination, it is time to use it as a way to take seriously African history, a topic that is sorely missing from our educational curriculum. A study of precolonial African history would re-center our understanding of the past away from a skewed narrative about the supremacy of European rulers, one that limits our vision of the past and future.
The story of Sundiata Keita is behind “The Lion King.” Known as the Lion of Mali, Sundiata was the founder of the Malian Empire, the largest kingdom in West Africa. He ruled his empire, which expanded from the Atlantic coast all the way to the Niger River, from 1235 to 1255. Some may know of his great-nephew, Mansa Musa, who was the richest person to ever live in the history of the world. According to Forbes, Musa’s fortune was estimated at $400 billion, adjusted for inflation. During his famous pilgrimage to Mecca, he built mosques in his wake and gave away so much gold that the price of gold was devalued for the next 25 years.
But while Musa’s story is better known, the story of Sundiata’s reign is largely invisible in the West, despite the efforts of griots, or African storytellers, who have passed down the tale for generations. It was also corroborated by Tunisian historian Abu Zayd and Moroccan traveler Muhammad ibn Battuta, both of whom traveled to Mali about 100 years after Sundiata’s death to learn of the Lion King’s existence and reign.
While certain aspects of the story vary, the general narrative remains constant. Mandinka griots tell a story of King Naré Maghann Konaté, the real-life Mufasa. It was prophesied that if he took on an ugly wife, she would give birth to a son who would become a mighty and magnificent king. Accordingly, Konaté married Sogolon Kédjou, “the buffalo woman,” as his second wife. She gave birth to Sundiata, but he was born crippled and unable to walk. Though the king favored him, both Sogolon and Sundiata were mercilessly mocked for his disability. One day, Sundiata had enough. He was determined to walk and, miraculously, he did.
Sundiata then became strong and recognized as a leader among his people, sparking resentment from paternal half brother Dankaran Tourman and his mother, Sassouma Bereté. Tourman wanted the throne for himself. When the king died, many suspected foul play. Fearful of an attack on their lives, Sogolon took Sundiata and the rest of her children and fled into exile, leaving a kingdom in disarray. The Mandinka people were taken over by the cruel and oppressive King Soumaoro Kante of the Sosso.
In need of their true leader, the people sent word for Sundiata to return and take his rightful place as the king. In exile, Sundiata built alliances with the king of Mema and other local rulers. He gathered an army to liberate the Mandinka people and overthrow the Sosso king. Upon his victorious return, he adopted a new title for himself, “Mansa,” which means king or emperor in Mandinka.
In some ways, this history makes for a better story than what Disney concocted. It’s a story of a mother who protected her family by fleeing to exile. It’s the story of a disabled man who overcame tremendous physical and political challenges and triumphed by building alliances. It’s about a kingdom in West Africa that eventually became the biggest and richest empire in history, as Sundiata’s reign witnessed dominance in agriculture, gold and trade, and introduced cotton and weaving.
Did Disney base its story on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, unaware of the epic of Sundiata that preceded the Shakespearean tale by nearly 250 years? Perhaps. In a similar vein, many were unaware of South African Zulu singer Solomon Ntsele Linda, the original singer and songwriter of the movie’s classic song, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Linda was never compensated for his music nor acknowledged until recently, when the Netflix documentary “ReMastered: The Lion’s Share” investigated the history and the debt owed for Linda’s work.
Why have these origins been overlooked? The answer lies in the way that we’ve ignored African oral histories and culture. They aren’t taken as seriously as European rulers of the past such as Alexander the Great, King Richard the Lionheart or Napoleon, all of whom have become household names. The familiarity of these rulers has mainly served to circulate the centrality and even supremacy of white European leaders. The continuing promotion of Western European literature, such as Shakespeare, has obscured our ability to see African narratives as equally significant.
Worse yet, the number one most naive question asked of Africans is always “Have you seen lions?” The success of “The Lion King” shows that too many people are content to see Africa without Africans, and black culture without black people. But to borrow from the late historian Stephanie Camp, black history doesn’t merely add to what we know; it also changes what we know and how we know it.
When Marvel’s “Black Panther” debuted, conversations circulated about Afro-futurism and what life might look like in the future for black people. However, we don’t always have to look to the future. We can look at the past and present to imagine great African leaders.
Ironically, we would all do well to learn the invaluable lesson Mufasa was trying to teach Simba. From the stars, Mufasa admonished his son: “Simba, you have forgotten me. You have forgotten who you are and so forgotten me. You are more than what you have become … remember who you are.” In history, forgetting is political. We have not forgotten about Sundiata Keita. We have merely chosen not to remember.
“The Lion King” is a powerful story of leadership, loss and redemption. But the real story of Sundiata Keita should make us all want to cross our arms, beat our chests and declare with pride, “Lion King forever!”