Of the many nods to the power of diversity at the 2019 Academy Awards, Trevor Noah might have managed the one that, at the end of the night, rang truest. In introducing Best Picture nominee Black Panther, Noah joked about the many people who have greeted him with the signature “Wakanda Forever” salute, as if the fictional country and all the customs associated with it are real. The joke, complete with a Mel Gibson burn, ended with the host of the Daily Show saying, “Growing up as a young boy in Wakanda, I would see King T’Challa flying over our village, and he would remind me of a great Xhosa phrase: Abelungu abazi ubu ndiyaxoka, which means: ‘In times like these, we are stronger when we fight together than when we try to fight apart.’”
Noah’s inspirational address was met with general horniness and appreciative claps for a proud display of blackness in what might be the worst Black History Month on record. But what Noah actually said, according to the BBC’s Pumza Fihlani, is: “White people don’t know I’m lying.” The joke of course flew over the heads of the largely English-speaking audience, but Xhosa speakers on Twitter had a ball.
Noah’s translational gag isn’t entirely unprecedented, according to film historian Peter Labuza, who pointed out that Asian American actors Anna May Wong and Phillip Ahn “used to make up dialogue for their fans who understood Chinese and Korean.” And the Kazakh that Sacha Baron Cohen’s anti-Semitic Borat character speaks is actually fluent Hebrew, a move that went largely unnoticed by English-speaking audiences but made the movie an unexpected hit in Israel.
For an Oscar’s ceremony that came so close to getting it right only to hand out the biggest award of the night to a regressive, white-savior fantasy, its only right that Noah’s skewering of liberal feel-good kumbaya quotes flew almost entirely under the radar.