Opinion: What the calls to boycott ‘The Woman King’ are really saying
Editor’s Note: Nsenga K. BurtonPhD (@Ntellectual) is a professor, film producer, journalist and cultural critic. She is co-director of the Film and Media Management Concentration at Emory University, founder of The Burton Wire (a news blog covering news about the African diaspora) and a recipient of the Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. The opinions expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Note: This op-ed contains mild spoilers for “The Woman King.”
Imagine my excitement – as a black woman named after a controversial African queen – to see a Hollywood film about a fearless unit of female warriors dedicated to protecting the West African kingdom for over 200 years Dahomey.
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 much-anticipated movie made $19 million in its domestic box office debut last weekend, so clearly I wasn’t alone in my excitement.
The film tells the story of the Agojie, the most powerful all-female army in world history, their unparalleled devotion to their country, to each other and to their King Ghezo, played exceptionally by John Boyega.
But there is a call for a boycott the movie because, for its critics (even those not calling for a boycott), it underestimates the role the Dahomey kingdom played in the Atlantic slave trade. In their eyes, this fiction film inspired by true events does not give enough information about a horrific history – the kidnapping and sale of Africans by the kingdoms of Dahomey and Oyo – that is, in the storyline of the film, a subplot, while the main storyline revolves around a group of tough African women, who live, love and work together to ensure that their people remain free.
The period of Dahomey’s most intense involvement in the slave trade involved the trade of West Africans in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, mainly by taking captives who were then enslaved abroad by European traders. The real King Ghezo finally agreed to end Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade in 1852, under pressure from the British government (which had abolished slavery in 1833).
However, the Atlantic slave trade is hardly overlooked in the film. At the beginning of the film, Davis’ character Nanisca admonishes the king for involving his people – and other Africans – in the business. She spends the entire film talking about how it is wrong to sell your own people and offers alternatives to the barbaric practice. The climax of the film features the Agojie freeing Africans who were about to be transported to the New World.
Isn’t it interesting that some of those calling loudest for the boycott are black men? Where were similar calls about movies like ’12 Years a Slave’, ‘Django Unchained’ or ‘The Good Lord Bird’ – films about the slave trade were given abundant creative freedom in their depiction of characters, storylines and the setting of slavery itself?
There is inherent value in a film about a dynamic band of black warriors many had never heard of, from a West African kingdom most couldn’t find on a map, who challenge the idea of male supremacy. The film’s controversies only reinforce the need for more people to see and talk about the film.
Meanwhile, critics arguing for a more realistic depiction of the slave trade could direct their energies elsewhere: they could focus, for example, on the fact that school systems by the United States taking his steps Unpleasant erase his reality and legacy from curricula. Or that many Americans dismiss it as “no problem” when discussions about slavery lead to reparations. Or that the slave trade has historically misrepresented in television and film for over 100 years – see movie classics like “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) or “Gone With the Wind” (1939) or TV classics “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1987) and “Roots” ( 1977) ).
I suspect that much of the criticism and most of the attempts to suppress this film are actually about its depiction of powerful black female warriors fighting and winning battles in a Hollywood that is still predominantly white and male. Not only in the film, but in the very fact of its creation, and the audience it has already gathered, black women win – and the trolls opposed to the film lose.
As much as it is about something else, “The Woman King” is about the uncertain journey Black women make – and the obstacles they face – in pursuit of freedom and self-determination in a world where misogyny and misogyny predominate.
“The Woman King” is an excellent film in the tradition of classics like “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 difference that only makes the film more worth seeing.
Hollywood has spent much of its existence rejecting the talents of black women. The effort of some to erase their work in “The Woman King” is deplorable. 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 join a lively debate about what worked and what didn’t and how it could be portrayed more accurately.
There is even – or perhaps especially – intellectual and cultural value in the conflict and contradictions.