“Terrific”, “Inspirational” and “Rousing” are only some of the descriptors applied to Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King (2022). With a star-studded cast that includes academy award-winner Viola Davis, alongside British black royalty Lashana Lynch and John Boyega, The Woman King has drawn in audiences across the globe and has grossed $77.3 million worldwide. However, Prince-Bythewood’s new film has fallen victim to a wave of online backlash. Many have claimed that the film, in exchange for glamorising the all-female warrior Agojie warriors, has neglected its bleak historical reality – one in which the Dahomey Kingdom was itself an active agent and facilitator of the slave trade during the 17th- 19th century. The controversy has marred much of the publicity in the run-up to the film’s release, with many social media users calling for its boycott. Tonetalks declared on Twitter that “This may be the most offensive film to Black Americans in 40-50 years”. But is this true?
A quick Google search will reveal that the African Dahomey Kingdom was involved in the capture and reselling of African peoples to the Atlantic slave trade and whose vast wealth was established on that basis. Even following the English’s retreat from the slave trade, Dahomey continued the practice towards the end of the 19th century. The Agojie, the all-female military group on which the film is based, was also involved in the capture and resale of slaves during this period. The harsh reality and tragedy involved in this case study were revealed in a Channel 4 documentary titled “Warrior Women ”, headed by Oscar-winning actress, Lupita Nyongo. It has now become public knowledge that Nyongo was initially set to star in the movie, however, it was her discovery about the Dahomey Kingdom’s dark past that swayed her against it.
The online backlash falls short of recognising the complexity of the slave trade and the movie’s intentions and impact. When I went to watch the film, I went in with the presumption that the film never approached historical reality at all – yet this was not the case. There are several moments where Nanisca (played by Viola Davis) and King Ghezo (John Boyega) discuss the shame involved in the sale of their own people. There is even a moment within the film where Nanisca proposes that the Kingdom begin to focus on palm-oil production as a replacement for the trade. Yes, these discussions were fleeting and lacked any level of historical depth, but to have gone in further depth would have made for a separate plot entirely. Even then, it is likely that this new plotline, like many historical films, would always fail to effectively represent the horrors and complex realities of the slave trade; particularly the involvement of Africans within that.
The Woman King focuses on the development of Agojie and its young recruits not only as black women in a colonial world but also as warriors in their own right. The film strikes a delicate balance, resisting falling into the “strong black woman” trope with contrasting scenes of tenderness. There are intimate moments such as the hair braiding scene between Izgoie (Lashana Lynch) and Nawi – black spaces that are rarely seen on the full screen. Black skin glows in a manner that is neither fetishizing nor reductive. My cinema screening was filled with black women of different generations and the feeling of pride was rampant throughout; with visceral and excited reactions from the audience at several points within the movie. To focus on the criticism is to neglect a whole world of potential readings and the personal impact that the film may have on its viewers, especially black women of colour. Historical films rarely do justice to reality and The Woman King is undoubtedly one of them but the criticism it has received can make one feel tired as even unapologetic attempts to illustrate black pride will always fall short of public demand.
“File:COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Groepsportret van de zogenaamde ‘Amazones uit Dahomey’ tijdens hun verblijf in Parijs TMnr 60038362.jpg” by Fotograaf / photographer: niet bekend / unknown is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.