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The Woman King

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood (USA). Year of Release: 2022

West Africa, 1823. Opening credits tell us of the Agojie women’s battalion of the Dahomey army. We cut to a campfire, where a group of men are doing manly man things like sharpening their swords. One of them hears something and goes to check, but it’s only an animal. Then, suddenly, a troop of women warriors appear out of the bushes and whup their asses, although they suffer significant losses of their own.

Cut to: Nawi who is being offered to another possible husband – an ugly older man. When he tries to physically discipline her, she hits him back. Her father takes her to the palace and offers her to the king. She is taken into the special women’s only area where the Agojie train. She comes into immediate conflict with the army leader Nanisca, who tries to impose on her a sense of discipline and loyalty to the king, which Nawi resists with hot-headed petulance.

There follow over 2 hours of fights, interspersed with Plot Development – things like an unnecessary love interest, Nawi announcing that she’s an orphan, and Nanisca discovering that Nawi is the daughter that she gave away for adoption after an unwanted birth. It’s no different to many other historical dramas – or indeed many melodramatic daytime soaps – if it weren’t for the case that almost all the leads are played by Black women.

Let’s start with what’s not wrong with The Woman King, beginning with what should be obvious but apparently isn’t. Women and PoC are so hideously under-represented in film, that an all Black cast with leading roles for women is a Good Thing in and of itself. If anyone has a problem with this, there are plenty of other films they can watch, ie pretty much everything else that Hollywood has ever produced.

Secondly, some people are moaning on the Internet that the film is historically inaccurate. I might start listening to these people if they can produce a single big budget film, or indeed any Shakespeare play, that adheres to historical fact with anything resembling historical accuracy. Yes, the Woman King does plays fast and loose with the truth, as do pretty much all films of its genre. Facts have been changed for the sake of plot. So fucking what?

There seems to have been an attempt to manufacture on online scandal about the fact that, actually, Dahomey continued to keep slaves long after the incidents shown in this film (strokes beard). In some cases, the people making this point almost seem to be blaming the people of Dahomey for slavery, rather that white slave traders and the governments who backed them and profited from their actions.

There is a grain of truth in the criticism, though, which is that the film’s roughly Pan-African politics ignore the class differences within Dahomey society. When one of the more rabid incel online critics headlines his review “Basically, all leftist ideology in a single movie title“, he turns the film’s real problem on its head. Because the title does betray one of the film’s main weaknesses, and it’s not that ‘all leftist ideology’ (whatever this is) is clamouring for a king of either sex.

The problem lies in the film’s deference to royalty and military discipline. From a very early scene – when cheering children are told to avert their eyes from a parade of women soldiers because of the king’s orders – the Agojie are presented as the representatives of the unambiguously noble crown. When the king makes a misjudgement, the answer is not to dismantle the undemocratic institution of monarchy, but for him to withdraw in favour of a better, more female, king.

Having an all-Black cast is a radical step, and a slight counterweight to all the films with all-white casts that Hollywood has churned out. But it creates a political problem – if the Agojie are not going to fight white slave traders, then who is the enemy? The solution is to introduce a couple of Brazilian traders, while making the main enemies a rival tribe which collaborates with the slavers (as does Dahomey). This reduces the fight against slavery to an essentially tribal dispute.

Does any of this matter? I think it does, on both a political and an artistic level. Politically, because of the refusal to name names as to who was at fault for the slave trade. Nanisca tries to convince the king to develop palm oil, so they don’t have to sell as many slaves, but the process of slavery is seen as being inevitable, if slightly distasteful. As the king must stay in power, he must deal with slave traders, and everyone else must know their place and worship his rule.

The political conservatism also leads to an artistic conservatism. The Woman King is not the same as all those films which spend inordinate time showing us big men fighting each other, but in one aspect only. Here we see big men fighting slightly smaller women. Again and again and again. It gets very boring, very quickly. This is in part a personal thing – there’s plenty of people who enjoy endless fight scenes. But for me it’s a concept of equality that lets women be as dumb as men.

If you like this sort of thing, you’ll love The Woman King, and all the better that a broad audience will see that sisters are just as capable of action as men. It’s a great film to turn your brain off and watch the fighting. But it doesn’t really work on any other level. Just before it started, they played the trailer for the new Black Panther sequel, showing that there’s lots more of this sort of thing to come. I’m going to hide now – can someone let me know when it’s all over?

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