Hollywood is rediscovering the African continent: director Gina Prince-Bythewood has shot a historical spectacle. It leaves room for imagination.
Shortly before the end of “The Woman King”, a feverish fantasy about black self-empowerment, which is loosely based on historical events, it becomes symbolic: one hits with the heavy iron chains with which the slave traders had recently imprisoned their human “goods”. black amazon on a white one.
At this point in time, director Gina Prince-Bythewood had finally detached herself from the pretense and claim of presenting a historical film with “The Woman King”. In fact, it has already become a fantasy film. The fact that her film is celebrated almost across the board in the USA, is also successful at the box office and is even considered a candidate for the Oscars by some tells a lot about the state of the socio-political debate in contemporary America.
There has been a lot of talk about diversity and representation in recent years, and rightly so, of course, since Hollywood has marginalized people who don’t fit the heterosexual Caucasian ideal for far too long. The fact that this is slowly changing does not primarily have to do with a newly discovered liberal attitude, but – you don’t have to kid yourself – with money.
A film about female Amazon warriors who lived in the early 19th century in the West African state of Dahomey lived and fought, Hollywood doesn’t just produce on a $50 million budget. Three factors made “The Woman King” possible: The success of the Marvel film “Black Panther”, which featured black heroes and, most importantly, a group of female combatants inspired by the historical Amazon warriors; the success that Gina Prince-Bythewood had with the Netflix action film The Old Guard; finally Viola Davis, one of today’s most renowned actresses, who acted as producer and took on the leading role.
Slave trade in the port of Ouidah
Davis plays Nanisca, general of the so-called Agojies, a group of Amazonian warriors who serve as the King of Dahomey’s personal bodyguard. In 1823, King Ghezo (John Boyega) is at odds with the neighboring Oyos kingdom, which demands annual tribute payments and, above all, controls the port of Ouidah, which is important to Dahomey’s economy. And this economy consists to a large extent of the slave trade, which you don’t really learn from the film, on the contrary.
Although the basis of “The Woman King” is historically proven, in 1823 Dahomey was actually in conflict with Oyo, whom the young king Ghezowho had come to power in a controversial manner only a few years earlier: the core of the film is pure and increasingly absurd fantasy.
As I said, the focus is on the Agojies, whose tough training regime is described in detail. The often young women do not always go voluntarily to the king’s palace, where they live entirely for the fight and without a man, while the king worships polygamy. The viewer experiences this world through the eyes of the young Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), which, at least to some extent, takes a completely new look at the social and political conditions in Africa for Hollywood cinema: a thoroughly organized state is shown, a functioning economy, one country that is characterized by power and self-confidence.
However, the historical reality is complicated and as a rule does not fit into the simple schemes that commercial cinema prefers. It is also part of the reality of West Africa that the transatlantic slave trade would not have been possible without the active participation of the native peoples. There is no question that it was the Western world’s hunger for enormous amounts of cheap labor that created the demand that hardly any African people could or wanted to resist.
However, the slave traders hardly penetrated into the interior of the continent, they built forts, for example on the slave coast of today’s Ghana or in Dahomey and were supplied with slaves there by black middlemen. The wealth of Dahomey in particular is based to a large extent on this trade, a business that the kings of Dahomey wanted to continue even when the slave trade was at least officially outlawed.
Pan-African Embassy: End of Patriarchy
What “The Woman King” says, on the other hand, sounds very different. The presence of slaves in Dahomey could not be completely negated, but played down. Slaves are only taken here as spoils of war, and they are treated rather well. But above all the heroically marked Nanisca, an invincible warrior who takes on any man and is also an incorruptible advisor to her king, develops into a vehement opponent of slavery.
For long stretches, “The Woman King” moves in narratively conventional paths, which are above all out of the ordinary because women, Africans, warriors are the focus here. In the finale, however, all signs of historical narration are finally stripped away and instead a pan-African message avant la lettre proclaimed, which should mean not only the end of slavery, but also the end of patriarchy.
This no longer has anything to do with historical reality, but all the more with the spirit of the times, which ensures that blacks and especially black women are also provided with typical, transfigured heroic figures from Hollywood. One could mistake this development for progress.