The Woman King movie and it’s softened depiction of slavery in the 1800s
The Woman King movie is about the Agodjie, a female military regiment that protected the kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin) in the 1800s.
The 6,000-strong regiment were palace guards and its fighters were formally married to the king as third-rank wives.
The King did not have sexual relations with the female soldiers and at the time, the Agodjie were the only women in the world that fought in wars.
Dahomey also participated in the transatlantic slave trade between 1715 and 1850, thriving by selling slaves to European traders, a practice The Woman King concealed .
The Woman King portrayed Dahomey as an anti-slavery kingdom, when it certainly wasn’t. The film also portrays the Agodjie as freedom fighters, while they were just ordinary soldiers who captured and sold slaves.
It is, essentially, a deeply sanitised version of the sombre truth about slavery and 19th-century Africa, replete with sweet and melodramatic nostalgia for an Afrocentric fantasy.
Movies such as The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind shows that Hollywood have largely refused to make films that depict slavery accurately.
Django Unchained, the 2012 revisionist Western film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, lacks nuance in its portrayal of slavery.
These movies are a far cry from the dark and challenging times when the truth about slavery mattered to African American storytellers.
From the 1830s to the 1890s, formerly enslaved people used their experiences to shed light on, and humanise the horrendous reality of slavery, building support for abolition.
According to the National Humanities Center at North Carolina University, “The fugitive or freed or ‘ex’ slave narrators were expected to give accurate details of their experiences within bondage, emphasising their sufferings under cruel masters and the strength of their will to free themselves.”
The storytellers, essentially, had to be honest. Brutally honest. Writers, producers and executives in Hollywood, must pay attention to detail and avoid creating revisionist narratives that seek to moderate the crimes committed by both Europeans and Africans during the transatlantic slave trade.
Africans did sell other Africans into slavery. That tremendously significant detail cannot be bent or avoided. Nor must it, of course, be weaponised to minimise or dismiss the culpability of European slave traders.
Producer Viola Davis and director Gina Prince-Bythewood cannot offer redemption to Africans that captured and sold people by erasing Dahomey’s slave trading credentials in the search of a false but feel-good narrative that might appeal to a “universal” audience, including white people.
Sure, the history of Dahomey, and especially the Agodjie, is exceptional and undeniably fascinating, but as Black people, that shouldn’t diminish our shared commitment to disseminate the truth in our stories.
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