“The Woman King” is a good movie. It is cast flawlessly, has amazing acting, exciting fight scenes, and touching human moments. Viola Davis once again transforms herself for an iconic role. Lashana Lynch chews up every frame of film in which she appears. This might be my favorite Sheila Atem appearance to date. And after Thuso Mbedu’s performance in “The Underground Railroad,” I will follow her to hell and back to see anything she’s in.
That said, “The Woman King” is not a good documentary because popcorn movies for general audiences aren’t typically true stories, even the ones based on true stories. My biggest beef after watching the film is that it was initially being marketed in ways that erase these distinctions.
The trailer makes the film look like it’s doing things that it isn’t, like skipping over historical facts to make some proto-feminist agenda point, with maybe a little cross-cultural love story thrown in. I get that the trailer – all 90 seconds of it – doesn’t break down what the actual story is. It’s a better movie than its trailer offers.
I’m also sad that more people who have seen it and get what the film is actually doing aren’t telling potential audiences what the story is. I don’t want to be one of those coy players either, so I will tell you that TWK not only mentions the issue of Dahomey slave trading; it is the crux of the story. It’s mentioned in the first 60 seconds of the film. The film doesn’t minimize Dahomey’s role in the trade; quite the opposite. It creates a story in which the nation attempts to grapple with how to extricate itself from the practice. It is literally what the film is about.
Now, we can talk about how true that story element is, but then, why? TWK isn’t a true story. It is a fictional story based on a real culture. It takes liberties. It smashes timelines. It creates convenient moralities and embodies them in characters that also did not exist. It’s only historically inaccurate if you expected to get actual history from a fictional tale. How inaccurate that history might be is knowable. You’ll just have to use more than a 2-hour Hollywood movie to get that information. You know, if you really want it.
And let’s be honest: y’all don’t want an historically accurate version of the Agojie. You don’t want an actual movie laying out how, in 1727, the Dahomey took over Hueda, which set them up to establish European and transatlantic trade. You don’t want to see a movie in which the Agojie capture people and trade them (which actually obliquely happens in this movie briefly). You don’t want to sit through an exploration of how nations that traded what they perceived as captured labor may or may not have known what kind of fresh hell they were sending people to. The dozens of other angles that orbit Dahomey’s (and plenty of other African nations) relationship to the trading of human beings doesn’t make for compelling entertainment. So let’s not pretend that we want that movie, or that we believe Hollywood would ever bankroll another $50 million to make a historically accurate record.
What a movie like TWK accomplishes is that it opens the door for discovery. It is true enough to generate curiosity in anyone genuinely concerned about such history. Most of the people who watched Black Panther didn’t know the Dora Milaje was based on anything real. When many of them found out, they immediately started calling for a movie that dug into the real history of such women warriors. Viola Davis got on the case, and here we are: boycotting a Black movie about an African society that was designed to cater to the thirst for Black representation, and maybe get some people to advance the ball a little further down the historical field.
Nah, we want our movies to do all that work. We don’t want to read books or sit through lectures or pour over thinkpieces or watch documentaries. We want a movie – ONE MOVIE – to fix our history.
Remember when everyone found out “Roots” wasn’t real? That Alex Haley had made up key elements of his own family story? Remember how we still watched it over and over? Remember when we made a Christmas special for it? Remember when we made a sequel? Remember when we rebooted it? Remember how we kept it on the syllabus? Remember “Shaka Zulu?”
How about Emmett Till? We keep telling his story in movies and TV shows and comedy stand-up routines. The most recent trailer for the upcoming “Till” movie is mostly the people behind the film imploring people to come see it by pointing out that it won’t traffic in Black trauma. The director is loudly proclaiming to the camera that it doesn’t contain the violence we know happened. This is a clarification that you never see a filmmaker make because so few of them are in the business of selling cinematic Black history. They have heard that Black people don’t want to go see the movie because of the assumed level of violence. But then, without that violence, how do the people this movie is actually intended for – white people – get the point?
How about “Rosewood?” Remember that John Singleton haymaker? That movie was about one of the most horrific instances of white terrorism to ever happen on U.S. soil. White folks literally wiped a Black town off the map. And yet, the film was wildly historically inaccurate. Whole people didn’t exist that were main players in the film. We all understood that the movie wasn’t true, but it was right. The events were fictional, but they got at the heart of what happened. If you really needed to get the deadly details, they were out there for you. We understood that distinction because we thought the story was important.
Remember “Lovecraft Country’s” take on Tulsa? How about “Watchmen?” Not accurate, but still relevant to the historical event. And that’s what TWK is, too. It’s not a true story. We’re allowed to do that. We’re allowed to be aspirational in our stories. We’re allowed to generate nuance in the quest for reclamation. We’re allowed to trick people into a hunger for history. It’s the movies, not the news.
I don’t usually make cases that challenge people to partake in things before they can level an opinion. It’s unfair and unrealistic, and that’s what trailers are for. And I’m not going to do that here either. I’ll just say that if you’re boycotting this movie over the kind of charges that I’m seeing floating around, you’re probably wrong about this movie. If you’re okay with that, cool.
But I wish I would boycott this film while y’all out here loading up your February calendars with pretty much every other movie that takes the same level of liberties.
(For the record, I’m not even entertaining beyond the purpose of getting some jokes off the suggestion that the film emasculates Black men. Plenty of macho men stomping around alpha-ing over everything. No one movie centering Black women could do that. Even if a film called “How to Emasculate a Black Man in 10 Days” existed, it wouldn’t accomplish the task. That would imply that Black men had somehow changed in response to the film. Pretty sure that’s not happening. All I wanted to do coming out of the theater was some sit-ups.)