“The Woman King” has everything you could ask for in an historical epic: the fate of nations, political intrigue, large-scale battles with personal stakes, generational drama, and a star-crossed romance. The cast is superb, the sets, costumes, and cinematography all remarkable. So why is it controversial? Let’s get to that nonsense in a minute. Let’s consider the film on its own first:
We’re told in the opening text crawl that the African nation of Dahomey is at odds with its neighbors and wrestling with its participation in the slave trade. Thuso Mbedu plays Nawi, a daughter who refuses to be married off to an older man. She’s instead given to the army, which boasts a fierce corps of women fighters.
Nawi doesn’t always do what she’s told, and the first half of “The Woman King” largely follows her training. She gets to know her fellow soldiers, most notably Lashana Lynch as her mentor Izogie. The training is intense and seeing Nawi grow and find her own path forward without losing her individuality is done interestingly enough to be its own movie. Mbedu and Lynch both shine in their roles.
Meanwhile, we see snippets of the kingdom’s politics. General Nanisca, played by Viola Davis, urges John Boyega’s King Ghezo to do away with the slave trade entirely. He’s not so sure. Many in the court agree with him, since it’s their primary way to buy weapons to fight the neighboring Oyo. Ghezo’s already done away with the slave trading of fellow Dahomey, focusing instead on capturing and selling their enemy. Before long, things come to a head with the Oyo, focusing on a brutal connection between General Nanisca and the Oyo’s new general.
Swirl in that brief will-it/won’t it romance for Nawi with the visiting Malik, who is half-Dahomey and half-Portuguese, and you’ve got all the components for a riveting epic.
We’re used to these types of historical movies being told in muddled gray-blues and muted reds, showing off the history of Europe as if everyone without a suit of armor was that mud-farming peasant in the opening scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. More recently, the series equivalent has found a market in making everyone into some kind of Viking-era leather biker. This is the “gritty” that for some reason we all pretend is realistic, but more often fails a historical movie’s actual history and setting.
“The Woman King” director Gina Prince-Bythewood courageously suggests that eras prior to this one had more than two color tones available to them. Cinematographer Polly Morgan shoots the film gorgeously with a focus on rich oranges, and more well-lit and thus natural browns, greens, and blues. There’s some beautiful use of mist. The film has a unique visual blend of side lighting characters in foregrounded shadow that’s rare but works gorgeously here. It did take me a moment to get used to an historical epic that looks more natural, since the medieval films that saturate the genre always look like they take place in a walk-in freezer. Once I acclimated, I was so glad the film was this expansive in its visuals.
There’s a later scene in “The Woman King” of a drowning and it was like watching a painting in motion. I wouldn’t describe the entire film like that, but there are visual moments that do reach this height. If I had one criticism, it would be a minor one. In films like these that span periods of time and large distances, it’s always good to have some compartmentalization of sequences. For an obvious but effective example, think of every helicopter shot montage of the Fellowship trekking over mountains in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It doesn’t have to take that shape, but the most basic form is a wide environmental shot or brief montage interlude. I could have used a dash more of this in “The Woman King” to clarify larger gaps of time in the narrative. It becomes obvious that time passes, but that visual break-up can help us start a new set of scenes understanding this, instead of realizing it mid-stream. It’s a small but important aide to our immersion.
I also like Prince-Bythewood’s approach to fight choreography. She worked with fight coordinator Danny Hernandez on both this and Charlize Theron-starrer “The Old Guard”. In that film, they had a take on what can only be described as four person co-op fight choreo. Some of that partnered choreography makes it in here as well and it’s always a joy to see that level of creativity and execution. They’re hardly the first to do this kind of partnered fight choreo, but they are breaking a lot of exciting new ground on it.
My own pet peeve: I do think the spear work’s too spinny. It’s always too spinny; a spear is treated like a staff in historical epics because advancing in formation with the pointy end keeping the enemy at bay is less exciting than spinning it around in isolation to hit someone two feet in front of you. It’s akin to hundreds of European medieval epics that treat armored soldiers like turtles who couldn’t easily get up from their backs, or dozens of pirate epics that have that weird hip-to-hip choreography where the fighters hold each others’ hands down so they can banter instead of just slash each others’ legs to ribbons. Many will think it looks neat, a few will think, “Just stab the guy already”. There’s always something, but overall the fight choreo is great. Pet peeve concluded.
It’s a great film, a very satisfying watch, and it stands comfortably alongside other historical military epics we’d consider great. Why is there so much controversy around it then?
MOVING THE GOALPOSTS
Is “The Woman King” accurate? Broad swathes are. King Ghezo did end the slave trading of Dahomey’s own people and focus on selling captive enemy. He did pursue the palm oil trade as a replacement for slave trading entirely. Our histories tell us this is largely due to Britain’s eventual anti-slavery stance, and pressure they applied to African states in the region, but let’s remember these histories were written by the British and gave credit for anything and everything to the British.
That doesn’t serve as proof that things happened differently, but we have many other histories from the same era where the British habitually took credit for things that indigenous populations clearly accomplished instead. Might the truth have been more mixed in Dahomey? We don’t know.
Conservatives have been happy to point out that Dahomey women soldiers that Europeans termed ‘Amazons’ only took part in two major battles, in 1890 at Cotonou and 1892 at Adegon. Both involved the Dahomey being defeated soundly by French forces. This speaks to the point I just brought up. Dahomey women warriors only fought in two major battles that Europeans recorded. This ignores more than 200 years of service before this point.
Dahomey effectively conquered neighboring kingdoms with these forces deployed. During the Second Franco-Dahomean War, they created special operations units to seek out and assassinate French officers. The French often recorded praise for these women’s skill and effectiveness. Yet the two battles with the French are the major moments that survive in European records, so more than 200+ years of operation are boiled down to a span of two events that happened two years apart. That accounts for 1% of the total time the corps existed.
If I sat down for my first two meals with you, and took this as proof that you had only ever eaten twice in your life because it’s all I’ve witnessed, it would reflect far more about my reality than it would yours. If I went around and argued with people who said you’d eaten prior to this, and I insisted that you have never eaten before the two moments that I witnessed, it wouldn’t really tell anyone anything about your history of meals. It would tell people that I’d lost all tether to reality and logic. Yet this is the argument conservatives are doubling down on about the two years of military activity Europeans partially recorded out of more than 200 years.
Yet click on the trailer, clip, or just about any post and comment after comment will highlight two things about “The Woman King”. They will highlight that the movie ignores Dahomey’s history of engaging in the slave trade, which is the quickest way to tell that commenter didn’t even watch as far as the opening text crawl. But maybe you had to go to the bathroom and missed it. The Dahomey arrange captives to sell in the first scene of the film. But maybe you had to go the bathroom again, I don’t know. General Nanisca and King Ghezo talk about it several times. Their court debates whether they should end their ongoing participation in the slave trade. Various characters discuss it. In fact, Dahomey’s engagement in the slave trade is the plot of the movie. It’s what the political intrigue is about. If you’re going to the bathroom so often you missed it, see a Doctor; I’m worried about your insides. It makes up half the film. It’s clear as day that any of these commenters didn’t even bother to watch five minutes of the film.
The other thing they’ll highlight is that Dahomey’s corps of women soldiers only ever engaged in two battles that they lost, posing the film as lying about their effectiveness and just making the whole plot up. Never mind that this ignores more than 200 years of the corps’ history of operation – quite literally ignoring 99% of their existence. Conservatives ignoring 99% of women’s work isn’t anything new, but it’s always useful to point out.
Historical inaccuracy is a hell of a thing for Incel boards to organize themselves against when their entire movement patterns itself as a shallow pastiche of “300” and they celebrate movies like “Braveheart” and “The Patriot”.
Look, I can still enjoy some “Braveheart” as a deep shame-watch, but the Battle of Stirling Bridge? Happened at a bridge. Who would’ve thought? Primae noctis? No historical agreement it ever happened. Wallace’s dad killed by the English? Didn’t happen, the entire orphan myth is invented. William Wallace the highland commoner? He was a noble from the lowlands. Wallace never made it as far south as his military success is depicted in the film. The face paint Scots wear hadn’t been widely worn in battle for 1,000 years, and the tartan kilt they all wear wouldn’t be worn for 500 still. The nickname Braveheart? Robert the Bruce’s, not William Wallace’s. Isabella of France, the princess he secretly impregnates at the end? She would have been three years old at the time – actually, wait, that’s part of the Incel platform, isn’t it?
The point being that if you’re going to be fine with a film of that ilk, or really just about any medieval European historical drama, “The Woman King” makes significantly more effort toward a level of involving accurate events and historical developments. I would put it as easily more accurate than most films and series in the historical epic genre, which to be fair, still isn’t saying it’s particularly accurate. The major two points being brigaded are complete nonsense, though.
Who cares about comments? They do shape perception. I consider myself pretty jaded and analytical about this, and even though I knew where the comments were coming from and that they were a brigaded effort, I still went into the film thinking that it wouldn’t engage Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade. Hear something enough and you don’t even register the point at which a falsehood goes over the boundary and gets treated as reality. We all like to imagine we’re immune to that, but we’re not special – these things can find their way into rewriting the perceptions of any of us, which is why we have to consistently call them out and talk about them.
When it comes to brigading about this made-up criticism, conservatives online are organizing around it as an argument for justifying erasure of the history of slavery in both our education system and art. Many states are seeking to erase an honest portrayal of the United States’ history of slavery and slave trading, instead replacing it with narratives about slaves being voluntary guests. Several states have passed legislation that bans colleges from teaching critical race theory, and many other elements that portray the real history of slavery in the U.S.
If conservatives can point to “The Woman King” and (deeply inaccurately) insist that Black artists are erasing African nations’ history of slavery, the conversation gets turned into, “Why can’t we?” It turns into a double-standard where white people who want to ignore slavery happened are the victims. They’re the ones who aren’t allowed to do something that’s normal for Black creators. Never mind that what they’re saying Black creators did is a gaslighting lie that’s the direct opposite of what those Black creators actually did.
What does this brigading do, though? It’s a pursuit of normalization. For better or worse (it’s worse), many viewers rely on user review aggregates to judge whether a film is worth their time or not. Brigading user reviews is a tactic organized by conservative groups online to discredit women filmmakers and artists of color. We can pretend it’s not effective, and it certainly isn’t always, but they aren’t looking for every outing to be effective. They’re looking for the one time out of 20 where it discredits someone. We’ve known ever since Gamergate just how effective it can be. We wouldn’t have ever had to deal with Steve Bannon or Milo Yiannopoulos at such an escalated level if we’d learned our lesson nine years ago. The blueprint of their work shaped much of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign strategy, a campaign for which Bannon was CEO.
You don’t have to sell your own ideas if you just tear everyone down to the same level of discredit, and the quickest route to that is blunt force online brigading. It doesn’t happen on its own; that kind of brigading really does require organizational evolution. These kinds of continued efforts still serve as a research and development lab for the next round of it, and conservative online focus on “The Woman King” is one part of the front line on the latest effort seeking to discredit Black history and Black voices.
If you’ve seen those comments or reviews, watch “The Woman King” to actually know what’s in it. If you want to enjoy a bunch of great performances and some beautiful cinematography and design, watch “The Woman King”. If you’re tired of muddy Viking biker gangs slowly discovering the secret choreographic advantage of getting up after falling down in a world that takes its visual inspiration from Eiffel 65’s 1998 pop hit “Blue (Da Ba Dee)”, and you want to see something good and satisfying instead, watch “The Woman King”.
You can watch “The Woman King” on Netflix.
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