Opinion: What the calls to boycott ‘The Woman King’ are really saying


Editor’s Note: Nsenga K. BurtonPhD (@ info) is a professor, filmmaker, journalist and cultural critic. She is the co-director of the film and media management concentration at Emory University, the founder of Burton Wire (a news blog covering news from the African diaspora) and recipient of the Entrepreneur of the Year award from the National Association of Black Journalists. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinions on CNN.


Note: This op-ed contains mild spoilers for “The Woman King.”

Imagine my excitement – ​​as a black woman named for a controversial African queen – to see a Hollywood film about a fearless unit of female warriors committed to protecting the West African kingdom of Dahomey for more than 200 years.

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 highly-anticipated film took in $19 million last weekend during its debut at the domestic box-office, so apparently I wasn’t alone in my excitement.

The film tells the story of the Agoji, the most powerful all-female army in world history, their unwavering commitment to their country, each other and their King Gezo, brilliantly played by John Boyega.

but There are calls to boycott The film because, for its critics (even those who are not calling for a boycott), it minimizes the role played by the kingdom of Dahomey in the Atlantic slave trade. In their eyes, this fictional film, inspired by true events, does not tease out enough information about a horrific history – the abduction and sale of Africans by the kingdoms of Dahomey and Oyo – namely, a subplot in the film’s narrative arc. , while the main story focuses on a group of notorious African women who live, love and work together to ensure their people remain free.

The most intense period of Dahomey Involvement in the slave trade The late 17th and early 18th centuries involved the trafficking of West Africans, mainly captives who had been enslaved overseas by European traders. The original King Gezo 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 ignored in the film. At the beginning of the film, Davies’ character Naniska admonishes the king for allowing his people – and other Africans – to join the business. She spends the entire film talking about how selling your own people is wrong and offers alternatives to the barbaric practice. The film’s climax involves Agoji freeing the Africans who were about to be transported to the New World.

Isn’t it interesting that some of the loudest calls for boycotts are black men? Where were the similar calls for films like “12 Years a Slave,” “Django Unchained” or “The Good Lord Bird” — films about the slave trade that were given ample creative license in their portrayal of characters, stories and the institution of slavery? ?

There is intrinsic value in a film about a dynamic group of black women warriors, who many had not heard of, from a West African state that most could not find on a map, challenging the notion of male supremacy. . The film’s controversies fueled the need for more people to see it and talk about it.

Meanwhile, critics seeking a more realistic representation of the slave trade may direct their energies elsewhere: they may focus on the fact, for example School system Across the United States Steps are being taken to Erase its reality and legacy from the curriculum. Or that many Americans dismiss it as “no big deal” when the discussion of slavery turns to reparations. Or that there is a slave trade Historically misrepresented For more than 100 years in television and movies – like “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) or “Gone with the Wind” (1939) or the TV classics “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1987) and “Roots” (1977) Watch movie classics. ).

I suspect that much of the criticism and attempts to suppress this film is really about its portrayal of powerful black women warriors fighting and winning in a Hollywood that is still overwhelmingly white and male. Not just in the film, but in the very act of its creation, and the audiences it has already garnered, black women are winning — and the trolls protesting the film are losing.

As much as it is about anything else, “The Woman King” is about the unsettling journey of black women – and the obstacles they face – in achieving freedom and self-determination in a world where Misogyny and misogynoir reign supreme.

“The Woman King” is a great film in the tradition of such classics as “Spartacus” (1960), “Braveheart” (1995) and “The Gladiator” (2000). The difference is that Black women are at the center of the action, behind the screen and the camera. It’s a difference that makes the film more watchable.

Hollywood has spent much of its existence Dismissing the talents of black women. The attempt by 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 portrayal of the slave trade problematic should watch it anyway – and then engage in a lively debate about what worked, what didn’t, and how it could be done more accurately. How can be illustrated with

There is intellectual and cultural value, even – or perhaps especially – in conflict and contradiction.

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