‘The Woman King’ Controversy, Explained
It's complicated, but definitely not worth a boycott
The Woman King received high critical acclaim upon its release on September 16, 2022, but now some are calling for a boycott of the film. The Woman King was inspired by the history of the Agojie, an all-female unit of warriors who fought for the kingdom of Dahomey between the 17th and 19th centuries. While inspired by history, the film follows the story of a fictional Agojie warrior, General Nanisca (Viola Davis), as she trains a group of young female recruits and prepares them to join the battle against the Oyo Empire.
The majority of characters in the film are fictional, with the exception of King Ghezo, portrayed by John Boyega. Ghezo was an actual king of Dahomey who reigned from 1818 to 1859 after replacing his brother, Adandozan. While the film obviously took some creative liberties with the story, that didn’t stop The Woman King from finding success. The film garnered $19 million at the box office on its opening weekend, which was far above what estimates had predicted. Additionally, it received rave reviews from critics and sparked outrage when it wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.
Much of the film’s praise comes from the fact that it is a beautiful celebration of Black women and their history. Plus, many may not be familiar with the Agojie or the kingdom of Dahomey (now southern Benin). The Woman King its woman to the forefront, depicting the Agojie as strong, powerful, and fearless warriors who fight to protect their kingdom. In an industry where Black women are frequently underrepresented or misrepresented, the film is quite a significant victory. Despite these merits, though, the film has started stirring controversy and calls for boycotting.
Why is The Woman King controversial?
The major reason for the controversy surrounding The Woman King is that it is allegedly historically inaccurate. Now, some individuals touting this claim may not actually care about the accuracy and are just using this as an excuse to boycott a film about Black women’s empowerment. However, some historians have weighed in on the issue, too, which raised some valid concerns.
One point that has sparked controversy is The Woman King‘s historically inaccurate depiction of the kingdom of Dahomey’s attitude towards slavery. In the film, King Ghezo and the Agojie are opposed to slavery. Ghezo is shown as a king struggling to end the practice in his country. A large portion of the film sees the Agojie risking their lives on dangerous missions to liberate those enslaved by the Oyo Empire. However, this depiction of the kingdom and the Agojie is not accurate.
King Ghezo was not the noble and kind leader he is portrayed as in the film. Instead, he was a notorious slave trader who used the trade to foster his kingdom’s wealth. Hundreds of thousands of slaves were sold to European slave merchants under Ghezo, who took to attacking and raiding neighboring towns in search of people to enslave. The kingdom of Dahomey also had control of the port of Ouidah, which became the second largest slave-trading port in the “triangular trade” route between Africa, North America, and Europe until the 1860s. Meanwhile, the Agojie were complicit in the slave trade, often aiding in Ghezo’s raids of other kingdoms and capturing people to enslave.
What does The Women King controversy mean?
The Woman King definitely doesn’t try to market itself as wholly factual. In response to the controversy, both Davis and her husband noted that much of the film had to be fictionalized for the sake of entertainment and art. This isn’t unusual, as most individuals watching historical fiction know not to take every single depiction as truth. However, those criticizing The Woman King claim that the film’s inaccurate depiction of slavery in Dahomey downplayed or whitewashed the history of slavery.
Despite the acknowledgment of historical inaccuracies in the film, many critics and historians are still urging people to watch The Woman King. Professor and film producer Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., makes a very valid point in an opinion piece on The Woman King controversy, where she suggested critics direct their energy elsewhere. Misrepresentation of slavery and historical inaccuracy is widespread in the film industry and notable in such works as Gone with the Wind and 12 Years A Slave. So, where are the calls to boycott those? Also, in states like Texas, educators are trying to wipe away the word “slavery” completely from school curriculums. Where’s the outrage about that?
Black studies lecturer Aswad Walker acknowledged the liberties The Woman King takes with truth, but still praised the film as a “love letter to… Black women of all generations.” Other critics also stated that the film is still worth watching for its celebration of the Agojie women’s strength and its exploration of their humanity and lives.
It is very important that viewers are educated and aware of the film’s creative liberties and understand the actual nature of slavery in Dahomey. However, calls to boycott the film are very unnecessary. The Woman King is still a valuable work of art and excels in its depiction of powerful Black women. It can be enjoyed for its merits while providing an opportunity for further education by raising the discussion of depictions of slavery in film. But it certainly wouldn’t do any good by being boycotted and ignored.
(featured image: Sony Pictures)
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