"African Queens: Njinga" is the first installment in a new Netflix docuseries from Jada Pinkett Smith's studios highlighting true stories of some of Africa's most fascinating rulers. It's about the 17th century warrior queen of an area that's present-day Angola, featuring a mix of dramatic recreations and interviews with leading scholarly experts, including Wellesley College Associate Professor in the Department of Africana Studies Kellie Carter Jackson. Carter Jackson joined GBH's Morning Edition hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to talk about the real-life inspiration for the documentary. This transcript has been lightly edited.

Jeremy Siegel: Before we get into the series itself, tell us, who was Queen Njinga and what's her story.

Kellie Carter Jackson: First, I want to give a shout out to Linda Heywood because she wrote the only biography Queen Njinga, it's the only one that we have that was written in English. Queen Njinga was born in 1583 in the Kingdom of Ndongo. And she grows to such fame and stature, she becomes the leader of her people and spends most of her reign really fighting back the Portuguese, fighting back against the slave trade, trying to make these negotiations with Europeans. And she is known as being a fierce leader. A brilliant leader. She's a genius. She is cunning. She is fearsome on the battlefield. I mean, even as a young child, there are stories that her father rode out to battle with her on horseback as a kid.

She just has an incredible story. And she's not a household name. And I think that this series is so important because it really lets us know that there were women out there that were leading for decades, and doing incredible things at a time in which we should really know who she was.

Paris Alston: So, you know, Dr. Carter Jackson, I watched you in the series, and I'm even watching you here on Zoom talking about this and you're getting really excited. Your face is lighting up. And I believe there is even a critic that described your excitement about this as an on the same level as one would have when talking about Beyoncé, for instance. So tell us a little bit about what is so exciting about these stories and what is so exciting about having light shine on them.

Carter Jackson: Growing up as a kid, I didn't have these stories. I didn't know that someone like her existed. And oftentimes the stories I had been given about queens was maybe Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth. But there was no one else I was really taught about in this way. Maybe Cleopatra, but oftentimes her ethnicity or her Blackness is sort of obscured. So Queen Njinga is Black. And she's leading for a long time, and she's doing these amazing things. And I was just so impressed and also so disappointed that she wasn't a part of my narrative.

And so my job as a historian is to really give voice and volume and value to people that don't always get taught in the classrooms. And I hope that this series changes that. I hope that she becomes a part of textbooks. I hope she becomes a part of these discussions. Black girls and really, all girls, need to see this is how we led. This is what we did 400 years ago. And I think that's really interesting about Angola is that after Queen Njinga's death, for the next hundred years, 80 of the rulers were all women. So they really set a precedent for what it means to have female leadership at the head as a standard.

Siegel: So this story features experts like you telling the story of Njinga. It also features high production value, dramatic recreations of everything in her story. And as you mentioned, she was a warrior. There is a fair amount of violence and has a TV-14 rating on Netflix.

Carter Jackson: It's not for kids.

Siegel: I'm curious about the way of telling the story here, because sometimes when I think of dramatic reenactments, like, I think of the cheaper History Channel things that are kind of goofy to watch. But for you participating in it, one, have you watched the series after being an expert involved in it? And why do you think it's the right way to tell the story in this way?

Carter Jackson: Sometimes you can get a film and you can watch it, and it might be really well-done, but the accuracy, the storytelling, is so off. And historians, we get so mad, like, 'that didn't happen.' But sometimes you get a documentary and you're like, Wow, this is boring. So I think a docudrama is actually the perfect blend, because you get all of the action, you get all the color and all of the sort of narrative storytelling. But then you also get to hear from experts and historians and scholars that can back up and verify what it is that you're seeing, and sort of make sense of whatever you're seeing, give you the larger context. And for me, I think it's the perfect blend of being able to get the best of both worlds, both the artistic storytelling, but also the historical accuracy.

"I always tell my students that Black women are at the forefront of everything. Of everything."
-Wellesley College Professor Kellie Carter Jackson

Alston: So we also have to grapple with the reality that the setting of this docuseries is at a very prosperous time in African history, but it's also right before the heavier parts of the slave trade. And we know that Queen Njinga was able to resist a Portuguese invasion for 30 years and be able to put a dent in the West African slave trade. But looking back on this history and the knowing about what comes after, and how it impacts us today, how do you grapple with that in seeing these powerful images of women, but knowing sort of how Black women move in today's world?

Carter Jackson: I always tell my students that Black women are at the forefront of everything. Of everything. And most of those things are progressive, those things that push us in a direction to be better humans to one another. And while Queen Njinga can't completely fight off all of these European powers — the slave trade exists for another 200 years after her death, and she's not able to completely curb it or stop the institution — she does her part. And I think that's really important. How powerful would it be to see more and more of these African kings and queens push back? She did what she could and I think she did with so much less than the Portuguese have, coming at her with all kinds of weapons and guns. And she was still successful with spears. And that, to me says a lot: That you can make a dent without necessarily being equally supplied as your European counterparts. To me, that says you're even more fearsome.

So for me, it's just a powerful example of what it means to rule and what it means to fight back against oppression and injustice. Still to this day, Queen Njinga is heralded as a national heroine. People see her as one of the leading figures who fought against the slave trade. And if you wanted to make the claim, you could that she's like the O.G. abolitionist, you know? She's really pushing back on the institution hundreds of years before you get a formal abolitionist movement in the United States and in the U.K.