Issue #7: The Woman King Review
The Woman King is a stunning Hollywood epic that is burdened by the competing masters of entertainment and history
Welcome to Shamira Explains It All/Shamira Explique Tout, a culture newsletter discussing the origins and impact of Black production and exchange, identity, and intellectual property via our digital, social, and archival discussions - and whatever else may be timely and interesting. Part English, Part Francophone. Reach out with feedback, suggestions, tips, and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This review of The Woman King was originally intended to be published at a publication (Mic at BDG) that recently laid off most of its editorial team, and so I am posting my critique here instead of going through the tedious labor of trying to place it at another publication. There are now over 500 of you who request semi-regular updates on my written material, and I am continuously grateful for that support.
As I have promised, this will never be a subscription service, but for those who are inclined, please feel free to send a token of appreciation to my CashApp (note: I will only post this on original material). I also implore you to contribute whatever finances or public support you can to the water crises in Jackson, Mississippi, the flooding in Pakistan that has displaced thousands, and the ongoing impact of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. As always, with Roe v. Wade being overturned, donate to The Brigid Alliance, the National Abortion Federation, or volunteer with the Haven Coalition if you are in the NYC area.
Lastly, I hope you are paying attention to the cruel and inhumane immigration stunts that are continuing to be deployed across the political sphere. Caitlin Dickerson at The Atlantic recently released a very long cover story discussing America’s sordid history of family separations; now we are seeing asylum seekers being disruptively bussed and flown across the country under misleading paperwork and false addresses, potentially leading to being ordered deported in absentia after missing a notice to appear (NTA). Immigration is very much a Black issue, as the treatment of the Haitian community at the Mexico Border under Title 42 has made quite clear.
On to the review.
The Woman King – based on the storied all-female Agojie, or Dahomey Amazons – opens with a custom rendering of a Star Wars opening crawl. The brief and dense flash of text across the screen ambitiously attempts to establish all of the major stakeholders – the Dahomey Kingdom and King Ghezo’s Agojie, the dominant Oyo Empire and Oba Ade, and the Portuguese slavers that maximized the business of chattel slavery by taking advantage of the ongoing conflict – and the competing motivations that offer narrative momentum in this two hour long historical epic. This cumbersome moment of establishing diplomatic affairs at the outset of the feature emphasizes the momumental task demanded of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s directorial vision -- to build and elaborate on a complex and commonly misunderstood terrain of Black diasporic history, situated in what is now known as present-day Benin. The use of the crawl text as a referential expository device also, subconsciously, frames the film outside of the accountability of history from its opening moments – allowing a cinematic experience that is “inspired by true events “ to install itself somewhere in between African myth, fantasy, and historiography, as it sits in dialogue with George Lucas’ prodigious and highly profitable space operas.
The sustained dance between the competing masters of entertainment and history is the fundamental tension that burdens the well-crafted Hollywood spectacle of The Woman King. Replete with stirring acting performances and precisely choreographed combat scenes – despite also being rated PG-13, the camera does not shy away from visualizing a more brutal and unforgiving reality of a life of combat, immediately breaking away from the more fantastic display of warfare showcased in The Black Panther in its first five minutes – the major thematic arcs are easy to follow and be enraptured in. The Agojie – already given a mainstream analog for the casual viewer with Black Panther’s Dora Milaje – are led by Viola Davis’ General Nanisca, a battle-tested and vigilant elder who has a personal relationship with the spoils of war, both as a captive and as a marshal of the agenda of the expanding Dahomey empire. New recruits – motivated by a standout performance from The Underground Railroad’s Thuso Mbedu, who portrays a spirited and indomitable Nawi – offer a direct POV of the journey of the Agojie, countenancing its legacy of female strength and power with a more nuanced assessment of gender roles and trauma-informed anger harnessed into the formation of a tactical warrior unit.
The kingdom’s leadership – rendered via John Boyega’s charming turn as the seemingly-progressive, yet machismo and ego-laden King Ghezo, and a cabinet of advisors that includes Beninese musical icon Angélique Kidjo – is at odds over the future of the kingdom beyond defeating the Oyo empire. Ghezo’s wife is the devil in his ear angling for a continuing of their participation in the slave trade; Nanisca the angel championing the transition to palm oil. All of these moving parts come to a head in the third act, courtesy of General Nanisca: the women of the Agojie’s pain particularly Nanisca’s, is offered closure, a raid at Port Ouidah results in the uprooting of Portuguese slavers and defeat of the Oyo empire, and King Ghezo makes the decision to transition out of the bloodthirsty industry with Nanisca by his side. It is a thrilling sequence of melodrama and action, built for audience gratification at its triumphant conclusion – white slaveowners dragged into the same ocean where many Africans were sent off, never to return, while the second largest slave port in the Atlantic slave trade is engulfed in flames.
The revenge fantasy of sisterhood and pan-African fellowship articulated by The Woman King, however, diverges from the annals of history, drawing significant influence from the other lauded historically-rooted epics of decades prior to assist in framing a satisfying watch. Shot in South Africa, Prince-Bythewood revealed that she studied Braveheart, Gladiator, and Last of the Mohicans as a guiding directorial template for her worldbuilding. These flourishes seem evident in the script as well: Braveheart’s beloved “they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom,” speech roared by Gibson’s William Wallace finds new life in Nanisca, who bellows “we are the spear of victory. We are the blade of freedom. We are Dahomey!” Last of the Mohicans’ tragic mulatto romance reinvents itself with The Woman King’s Malik, the bi-racial son of a Dahomey slave of presumed Brazilian origin. Moreover, the major narrative of the next generation of the Agojie has a closer resemblance to the journey of Maximus in Gladiator than as one rooted in historical fact.
The Dahomey kingdom’s storied role as active participants the transatlantic slave trade is a complex one, muddled by both European narratives that overstate the significance of slavery as an economic fulcrum of power, as well as counteracting reports throughout the Black diaspora that minimize any acknowledgement of complicity, preferring the simpler binary of victim and offender. A clear understanding of the Dahomey’s true position in a market that serves as a source of pain for many viewers in the Americas and their descendants, however, is pivotal in understanding the past. Left unaddressed, the open wounds furnished by the accounts of Igbo slave trading in the New Yorker or the story of the Clotilda voyage of 1860 – where Cudjo “Kossola” Lewis recounted being captured by the Agojie in Bantè and sold by the Dahomey at Port Ouidah to Zora Neale Hurston in Barracoon – begin to fester, beholden to contemporary perceptions of African cohesion and unity through racialization that belie the reality of the time.
As historians such as Isaac Samuels indicate, the reign of King Ghezo and his successor, his son Glèlè are the subject of much emphasis in discussing the Dahomey’s empire, often positioning a specific bloodthirstiness for human trafficking in contrast with the British Royal Navy’s steps to end the proactive slave trade off the African coast in the 1800s. This is largely rooted in the presumption of Dahomey slave practices as congruent to the formation of the American slave trade, which was an economic system of dehumanization from which there was no respite. “This myopic exercise in moralizing history is a lazy attempt at retrospectively ascribing guilt for what was then a legal activity and a deflection from the true crime of slave trade; which is its legacy,” Samuels writes. “while African slave societies assimilated former slaves into their societies, and the colonial and independent states that succeeded them were able to establish a relatively equal society for both its slave descendants and free descendants, the American slave societies created robust systems of social discrimination which ensured that the decedents of slaves continued to occupy the lowest rungs of society.”
The centrality of the slave trade to African economies is a hotly-debated topic – in practice, the Dahomey only won a third of the wars it engaged in, and private merchants only offered marginal profits in the triangular trade, precluding human capital from being a core tenet of their kingdom. This does not make the practice of combat and enslavement less cruel, but it positions it more in the expansion of empire – the unspoken byproduct of the “kings and queens” that are commonly valorized to rebut racialized portrayals of African disrepair – in which kingdoms such as Dahomey didn’t enslave its own people, but would pursue human captives as a byproduct of existing strategic aims against warring empires, as elaborated in rigorous research such as Edna Bay’s “Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics, and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey.” Cudjo’s tragic story as a Yoruba man captured by the Fon people of Dahomey, for example, is given the pretext of King Glèlè “having been insulted when the king of Bantè refused to yield to Glèlè’s demands for corn and cattle” and responding with a massacre and capture of the town. “The eurocentric interpretation of Dahomey's history has dragged it into these discourses with themes of African ‘culpability’ and African ‘agency’ in which detractors point to Dahomey’s slave selling history as a counter to the accusations leveled against the European slave buyers and the settler states which they established with slave labor,” Samuels elaborates. “African states were not defined by phenomena happening in Europe nor its colonies, their economies weren't dominated by European concerns and their political trajectory owed more to internal factors than coastal business.”
The Woman King is thus presented with the dilemma of addressing the realities of slavery without replicating an ahistorical and overstated narrative of African empires’ reliance on the slave trade, while simultaneously honoring the subversive presence of the female Agojie warriors of Dahomey in full context of their reputed brutality. While the script gamely attempts to thread the needle on various occasions – storylines broach the assimilation of captured women into the empire of Dahomey, for example, and the tensions therein – it still reverts to simplistic binaries in the more melodramatic turns in the script. “Let us be an empire that loves its people,” Nanisca counsels Ghezo. In this context, however, people is a reference to the greater concept of an abolitionist politic toward Africa as a whole – a notion that defies conventional thought around racial unity at the time, and further elaborates how the concluding battle at the Port of Ouidah functions as more of a crowd pleaser than an a rendering of historical events.
Where The Woman King is strongest is in its depictions of fellowship between Black women warriors, seeking to be defined as more than the trauma that shaped them. In particular, Davis’ characterization of Nanisca as a survivor of rape and her journey to enlightenment from her past demons serves as a thinly veiled metaphor between the discord between the West African and Black American story, and the bonds that remain to be rebuilt. “I left you. I am sorry,” Nanisca implores to Gbdeu’s Nawi. “I was not brave enough. But you survived. It was not your fault.” The dual message of healing between Black women as well as the descendants of the enslaved is further encapsulated by the reality of the Black maternal serving as vessels of slavery’s afterlives in the United States. There are other layered moments akin to this: Nawi’s gifting to Malik of a totem that is associated with the Fon religion of Vodun is a subtle allusion to not only the formation of AfroLatinx identity in the Americas, but the expansion of traditional practices throughout the diaspora, such as Brazilian Candomblé and Haitian Vodou.
Reckoning with the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and its impact on the entire Black diaspora is a challenging task in any medium, and a visual one even more so. Accepted best practices in film have set the standard of “show, don’t tell”, while the density of the source material may resist efforts to avoid didactic expository techniques and maintain a two hour runtime. As ethnonationalist tensions throughout the diaspora reaches a fever pitch in contemporary debates over reparations and accountability, the conversation around the West African trade ports is an increasingly delicate one that requires a layered understanding of the pain of a stolen people who have since established cultures throughout the Americas while creating space to explore the impact of European arrival to African shores alongside the extensive trauma and shame that still resides in varying capacities throughout the West African coast. It would be unfair to expect one movie to meet all of those burdens; many Hollywood historical epics conveniently bypass any significant examination of the slave trade altogether, prioritizing entertainment over discomfort, and above all else, The Woman King is both entertaining and stirring in the story presented.
In a time when accurate coverage of Black history is constantly under threat, however, a film that claims to speak towards a true history also has the remit of not perpetuating misconstrued tropes for the sake of narrative simplicity. If you have a more than surface understanding of Black transatlantic history and its reaches across the entire diaspora, the ambitiousness of The Woman King will leave an aftertaste of confusion and frustration , where the preservation of Empire is both championed as inherently radical simply for showcasing an ecosystem of African kings and queens, and the beautifully articulated bonds between Black women throughout the movie are positioned as an indication of moral superiority and evolution away from a barbaric practice. The urge to deliver a triumphant story defies the true evolution of the trade as part of the Dahomey legacy, as well as removes the nuance of slavery’s existence in pre-colonial Africa in favor of a liberation tale. While that compulsion may work for the Disney-fied narrative of the fictitious Black Panther universe, these are stories which are rooted in real and unreconciled trauma; offering them short thrift only serves as a disservice to the visually stunning aims and thematic messaging of Prince-Bythewood’s epic.
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