AKA: The Lion’s Share: The Lion Sleeps Tonight Story
Genre: Music Documentary/Docudrama
Year Released: 2019
Origin: USA/South Africa
Running Time: 84 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: TV-14
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: A Lion’s Trail, Who Shot the Sheriff?, Bananas!*, Kimba the White Lion, Devil at the Crossroads, Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti, The N-Word
-The Lion’s Share is part of Netflix’s Remastered series which involves music documentaries with certain song or musicians highlighted.
-Speaking of the Remastered series, this was curated as well as directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist. They’ve worked on multiple 30 for 30 ESPN docs and The Greatest Love Story Ever Told.
-Journalist Rian Malan is prominently featured in this documentary. He is most famous for his book My Traitor’s Heart and his work in Rolling Stone magazine where he first broke the story about the Linda family. He also has an album filled with original songs sung in Afrikaans.
-Solomon Linda was from KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and invented a choral subgenre of music called Mbube which was named after his biggest hit that would unfortunately be plagiarized.
-Joseph Shabalala from Ladysmith black Mambazo makes a cameo appearance in this documentary.
-Linda’s daughters are currently based in the Zola area in South Africa which has over 44,777 people in that town and it’s part of the Johannesburg metro area.
Some of my previous readers already know this with certain reviews I’ve done, but for those of you who are new, then I have an uncomfortable truth for you. The Lion King was built on a legacy of theft. Let’s count the ways, shall we? First of all, there’s the 1965 Japanese animated series Kimba the White Lion. You have to be blind or delusional not to see the insane amount of similarities between scenes, plot points, and several characters. This is all documented among other factors such as the attempted cease and desist suit against the North American debut of Jungle Emperor Leo (1997) in Canada, but there are obvious things by just watching that show. Second of all, Disney trademarked the phrase “Hakuna Matata” which they didn’t invent that saying to begin with and it’s pure cultural appropriation no matter how you look at it. If we’re going by a pure official language status standpoint, then one could make a case that they stole from five countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC for short). Thirdly, just this year after Jon Favreau’s not-live action remake was released, Nala…I mean Beyonce released the music video for her song “Spirit” which lifts imagery and scenes from South African musician Petite Noir’s long form music video for his “La Maison Noir” EP which was released just last year. Why do so many Lion King fans still defend Disney’s actions for all of this? I seriously wonder if these fans care more about their fandom, nostalgia, and childhood feelings more than people getting robbed of their culture and/or intellectual property.
Going back to South Africa, did you know that there’s a famous song associated with that movie among other commercials and TV shows that was a part of this thieving spree? Now you do.
The Lion’s Share deals with a famous song, a lawsuit, and the aftermath of all the events. Going back to 1939, there was a singer in South Africa named Solomon Linda. He was a very influential songwriter who created this song called “Mbube” (Zulu for lion) which was a huge hit in his home country and sold 100,000 copies. Linda licensed the song for international use, but he never got any penny for his song which would be plagiarized by the likes of Pete Seeger, The Kingston Trio, and most notably The Tokens who renamed the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” which everybody knows to this day. That song (particularly The Tokens’ version) has and is still used in so many commercials, TV shows, and movies. Then 1994 happened when Disney released The Lion King which raked in so much money. The film alone made $15 million in royalties from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and that doesn’t even count with the Broadway adaptation. Solomon Linda’s surviving daughters were in impoverished areas and had enough of this, so they decided to sue the licensing company who screwed over their dad who died penniless and Disney for stealing their father’s song. They are helped with a copyright lawyer and with a journalist Rian Malan who felt horrible that the Linda family was swindled by one roaring song. As they try to get writing credits and royalties, how would things play out?
I thought I was well-versed on how much The Lion King ripped off things, but I legitimately didn’t know “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” had this much baggage and was part of the thievery associated with that movie. For some reason, I believed that it was based on some traditional Zulu folk song, but I was thoroughly corrected in an online chat of all things when someone brought up Rian Malan’s original article after myself and others mentioned Kimba and the Hakuna Matata trademark controversy (long story). Seeing the faces and names of the major parties involved was mind-blowing. Rian Malan was a fascinating person to say the least. His ancestor was one of the people responsible for Apartheid in South Africa, yet he didn’t want to be like him and wanted to help the Black majority in numerous ways. He’s honest that he’s not as well-versed in cultural ally-ship, but out of a sense of guilt and justice, he wants to right this colonial wrong when Solomon Linda’s song was stolen. As much as I thought it would invoke White Savior elements, it certainly was a subversion by seeing him wanting to help the Linda family for the right reasons while also acknowledging the colonizing past from the White minority rule. The Linda sisters gave this a great dynamic in their interviews. They had obvious insider knowledge about the song and their dad (obviously), but they had such great insight and I felt sorry for them being swindled for decades. Delphi had the greatest quote in the film and I have to mention it here: “To think that the people of The Lion King are earning large sums of money with my father’s song. We were wounded that the children of the songwriter go hungry, but the Americans are fat with our father’s song. That hurt.” What made this hurt even more was that they had another sister who died in the early 00s due to HIV/AIDS. This made me sick because her life would’ve been prolonged if their family got the money from Disney and the licensing company. I even got furious seeing songwriter George David Weiss in archived footage saying that he got inspiration from that song from God. All I could do was reference a certain parody song that achieved meme status about him lying. Besides the story of this one song, the production was really good. The style did remind me of PBS’s American Experience documentaries, but they don’t resort to talking heads all the time, show great landscape shots of South Africa, and some mixed footage. One usage which I thought was funny was after the lawyers talked about starting the lawsuit after coaxing the South African government to cancel Disney’s national trademarks of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in that country, there’s a clip from The Lion King where Mufasa yells “Is that a challenge?” to Scar once they throw the gauntlet in the courtroom. Not going to lie, that situation re-contexualizes that scene in a hilarious way. This was so informative and the production added to the content of the film.
The Lion’s Share was certainly strong, but I wished there were aspects where the filmmakers could’ve been better prepared (That was a Kimba reference, by the way. You’re welcome!). I wished there was more insight not just from the Linda sisters, but from more South African musicians. Besides the Ladysmith Black Mambazo cameo, they could’ve really talked to other musicians inspired by Solomon Linda like those in those choirs or do Zulu-based music. I did enjoy the realism of the event, but things get really sad and the court case didn’t turn out the way everyone had planned (Spoiler alert: The 2019 Lion King remake still uses “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as mentioned at the end of The Lion’s Share!). I would’ve also liked to have seen interviews with Disney, but I’m sure they would’ve been too scared or too prideful to show up to accidentally incriminate themselves. There should’ve been more footage or music from Solomon Linda besides the “Mbube” song because I wanted to know about his other works. I understand the focus was on “Mbube”/“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, but that would’ve been a nice extra touch. There was even a blame game which really went nowhere. I won’t spoil everything, but there were accusations as to how the money was spent or even given. Part of me wanted the documentary to have been harder on Disney as sadistic as I sound. They certainly call them out and talk about how whet they did was cultural appropriation, but I think they could’ve brought in more aspects of that company’s history of racism or their dubious depiction of Africa in general (okay, they did part of it with that racist old school Mickey Mouse cartoon clip, but they didn’t go farther). The Lion’s Share does a ton of research, but certain things could’ve been expanded upon.
This documentary was such an eye-opener and really educated me on this famous South African song. The production and interview questions were spot on. The Linda sisters weren’t used as props and they really put a face on what would happen when people are screwed over by bigwig companies for stupid reasons. The Lion’s Share really goes deep into that lawsuit situation. Trust me, you will hate The Lion King or at the very least not look at that movie franchise the same way again once you watch this documentary. I do wish that they could’ve been less restrained and I’m not just talking about Rian Malan flipping the bird in one brief interview scene. The Lion’s Share was a great expose almost to the level of Big Boys Gone Bananas!* or The Central Park Five. Solomon Linda, you and your descendants deserved so much better.
P. S. If you’re curious about why I have less than favorable thoughts on The Lion King, then check out this post I wrote on the Ospreyshire blog. Things will make so much more sense.
P. P. S. You should also check out K at The Movies’ review of the 2019 TLK remake. Despite our difference of opinions on that Disney franchise, he did a great job writing it and it shows how much Disney plays off of nostalgia for the wrong reasons.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1 point if you love expose documentaries.
Subtract 1-3 points if you’re a hardcore Lion King fan.
Subtract 1 point if the concepts of cultural appropriation and plagiarism makes you uncomfortable.
-Great amount of research on the plagiarism case
-The Linda sisters’ testimonies
-Amazing production values
-They could’ve gone harder on Disney
-More representation from Black South African musicians
-Lack of representation in Solomon Linda’s catalog
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Warning: The Lion’s Share would be best for older teens and up. Sure, the content involves Disney and an innocent song, but there’s more to it than that. The language gets very strong at parts, Rian Malan uses his middle finger to prove a point in one brief scene, and some of the dialogue is better for older audiences. The concepts of cultural appropriation, plagiarism, Apartheid, and AIDS will be lost on younger viewers. There’s also archived footage of a very old Mickey Mouse cartoon which has a very offensive portrayal of Africans and shows them as barbaric and even cannibalistic. Disney’s not so innocent, don’t ya think?
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. The Lion’s Share is property of Netflix. The movie poster is from IMDb and is property of Netflix.