Movie Narratives, the Classroom and the Fear of Historic Truths
What does the film The Woman King have in common with films like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Gladiator, Marie Antoinette, Joan of Arc, Spartacus, Robin Hood, and Braveheart!
All are historical narratives and all are historically inaccurate! But they are great movies! Because frankly if they were historically accurate they would be better off as documentaries on the History Channel. But in Hollywood the goal of a film studio is to make a blockbuster feature that takes people away from reality so Mel Gibson.is the romanticized version of the Scottish warrior William Wallace and Robin Hood in a hundred different films appears as a dashing and unabashedly handsome male lead in green tights swinging swords and shooting unerring arrows at the bad guys. In some films he is so heroic he never kills a soul with his arrows, only scares the ruffians away and makes jokes as his merry men gather the loot. In short, as far from reality as you could possibly get!
So Why the online ire against The Woman King? The main point of contention by online critics is that the movie seemingly uplifts the African warrior women as freedom fighters without fully acknowledging that the Dahomey tribe sold other Africans into slavery. So the rallying cry goes out that it’s “Time to Boycott the Woman King movie!
Yet we never hear an outcry to Boycott films like Marie Antoinette, basically a spoiled foreign girl who spent money gambled and caroused behind her husband's back while occasionally giving to the poor. Marie was by no means an example for young girls to follow but her persona in film is often that of an angel vilified by circumstance and not opulence. The film The Woman King is about the Dahomey & Benin women warriors that historically brutalized enemy tribes which they captured for profit and traded as slaves into the transatlantic slave trade for weapons and wealth.
In the movie, Nanisca and Prince (soon to be King) Ghezo are passionately opposed to the slave trade and vow to end the practice. In reality, King Ghezo was one of the most vicious slavers in all of West Africa. The basic framework of the story is inspired by true events, but it is heavily fictionalized and dramatized. The Agojie was an all-female warrior group that did exist and they did protect the kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin) in West Africa. They were Patriots just like American Soldiers who do questionable things for the United States without questioning the wrong or right of it.
The Dahomey Kingdom became known to European traders at this time as a major source of slaves in the slave trade at Allada and Whydah. In fact one of the most famous pirate ships was named after the Kingdom of Whydah which the Dohomeans annexed! Built as a slave ship in 1715, the 100-foot, 300-ton Whydah Gally was hijacked during its maiden voyage by ironically the pirate Samuel “Black Sam” Belamy famous in the Boston and Cape Cod area and called the The Robin Hood of The Sea and the richest pirate that ever lived! Again, an obviously romanticized version of history.
In the marvel movie The Black Panther through the fictional lense of futuristic city of Wakanda, Black audiences were able to imagine an African nation that had triumphed over colonialism. And through the Dora Milaje — the elite team of female warriors who defended the fictional kingdom — moviegoers met an army of powerful women holding their own against men.
Little did moviegoers know that a part of this narrative was based on an actual people but unlike comics real life tends to be shades of gray instead of perfectly heroic heroes and perfectly evil villains we have flawed human beings doing amazing things without superpowers. By 1823, the kingdom of Dahomey was under the thumb of the Western-influenced, richer Oyo empire. It was forced to pay tribute in the form of virgins, guns and captives to be sold into slavery to European colonizers. This film is about that innate warrior within us that oftentimes is never celebrated, Its filled with action and battle scenes. But somehow it taps into the latent fears of some communities in viewing movies of empowered black people. This happened for the film Birth of A Nation about Nat Turner and also Shaka Zulu that was banned for decades in South Africa!
The Woman King is being persecuted for of all things the fact that it is not historically accurate.
The movies 300 and the movie The Gladiator were far from being historically accurate the caped Spartans facing oriental masked Ninja Persians is false in so many ways its difficult to list but what is most blatantly a lie is that the Greeks only had 300 warriors the actual number was closer to 7000,but no one wants to boycott the savage Spartans who routinely would murder the conquered helots that they enslaved. As for Emperor Commodus facing a gladiator in the arean the actual death of Emperor Commodus was caused by the emperor being strangled in his bath by Narcissus, a wrestler who was tasked with the deed by a small group of conspirators: the Praetorian Prefect, Aemilius Laetus; Commodus’ chamberlain, Eclectus; and Commodus’ mistress, Marcia.
“At a moment when Eastern European historians of the Holocaust are under threat from nationalist governments and countries with colonial pasts are pulling down statues and renaming streets, the debate over how to teach the history of race in America is entangling local school boards and engulfing national politics” according to a recent Time magazine article By Olivia B Waxman. The recent spate of laws restricting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom has generated outrage from some educators, so any version of history presented from a non Eurocentric perspective is a threat for many communities that have been racially stratified for years if not decades! Generations of American students have grown up absorbing a Eurocentric version of American history, encapsulated in a myth (Christopher Columbus “discovered” America) that every kindergartener once learned.
So there is great angst and sensitivity around the perception that someone is trying to castigate or vilify a community even if the historical accounts are true! This is a struggle for narrative for he or she who controls the narrative controls the perceptions of what is true.
The women in the film The Woman King hold the controlling narrative point of view and declare themselves, “Agojie” and “sisters” The sin of The Woman King is not historical inaccuracy it is for daring to offer excitement and controlling new narratives in afrocentrism without adhering to the narratives an viewpoints officially sanctioned by the Hollywood film industry. The sin of The Woman King is Freedom!