The excitement I imagined — like a black woman named after a controversial African queen — to see a Hollywood movie about a fearsome group of warrior women who have pledged to protect the West African kingdom of Dahomey for more than 200 years.
Inspired by true events, “The Woman King” was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and produced by Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis (who also stars) and veteran actress/producer Maria Bello. And the highly anticipated film earned $19 million at the domestic box office last weekend, so I clearly wasn’t alone in my excitement.
The film tells the story of Agojie, the most powerful female army in the history of the world, their unique commitment to their country, to each other and to King Ghezo, played exceptionally by John Boyega.
But there are calls for a boycott of the film, for its critics (even those not calling for a boycott) because it highlights the role of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the Atlantic slave trade. In their eyes, this fictional film inspired by true events does not reveal enough information about a terrible history — the kidnapping and sale of Africans by the kingdoms of Dahomey and Oyo — that is, the film’s narrative arc, the subplot, the main story centers around a group of evil African women. meanwhile, they live, love and work together to keep their people free.
The time when Dahomey was most involved in the slave trade was the traffic of West Africans in the 17th century. At the end of the century and the XVIII. in the beginning, mainly European traders enslaved abroad by taking prisoners. The real King Ghezo finally agreed to end Dahomey’s involvement in the slave trade in 1852 under pressure from the British government (which abolished slavery in 1833).
The Atlantic slave trade is hardly forgotten in the film, however. Early in the film, Davis’ character Nanisca commends the king for allowing his people — and other Africans — to participate in the business. The entire movie is spent talking about the wrongness of selling your people and offers alternatives to the barbaric practice. The climax of the film is Agojie freeing the Africans who were about to be transported to the New World.
Isn’t it interesting that some of the loudest boycotters are black men? Where were the similar calls for films like “12 Years a Slave,” “Django Unchained” or “The Good Lord Bird” — films about the slave trade that took a lot of creative license in their portrayal of characters, stories and the institution of slavery itself?
It has intrinsic value about a dynamic group of black women warriors that many have never heard of, from a West African kingdom that most have never found on a map, challenging the notion of male supremacy. The film’s controversies only increase the need for more people to see it, and to talk about it.
Meanwhile, critics who demand a more realistic depiction of the slave trade may direct their energies elsewhere: They may point out, for example, that the school system in the United States is taking steps to erase its reality and legacy from curricula. Or that many Americans don’t ignore the “big problem” when discussions of slavery turn to reparations. Or that the slave trade has been historically misrepresented in television and film for over 100 years — see TV classics “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) or “Gone With the Wind” (1939) or “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” ” (1987) and “Roots” (1977).
I suspect that most of the criticism and efforts to squelch this film are about its portrayal of powerful black women warriors still fighting and winning battles in a white, male-dominated Hollywood. Not only in the film, but in its creation, and the audience it has already gathered, black women are winning, and the trolls who oppose the film are losing.
As much as anything else, “The Woman King” is about the precarious journey of black women — and the obstacles they face — to freedom and self-determination in a world dominated by misogyny and misogyny.
“The Woman King” is a remarkable film in the tradition of such classics as “Spartacus” (1960), “Braveheart” (1995) and “The Gladiator” (2000). The difference is that black women are at the center of the action, both on screen and behind the camera. It’s a side that’s more than worth watching the movie.
Hollywood has spent much of its life denying black female talent. The effort of some to erase his work on “The Woman King” is unfortunate. But it shouldn’t work, and it won’t. Anyone who finds the film’s depiction of the slave trade problematic should watch it anyway, and then engage in lively debate about what worked, what didn’t, and how it could be portrayed more accurately.
There is intellectual and cultural value, even — or perhaps especially — in conflict and contradiction.