The first time I saw the trailer for Viola Davis’s The Woman King, Davis—butch, buff, and barking orders at a bunch of female warrior-recruits—came right off the screen. As an actor, Davis is capable of emotional 3D. I would pay to watch a movie of her drinking coffee in an urban Starbucks (My Coffee With Viola?), so getting to see her kick some trainee ass is a winning-the-lottery-level bonus.
I hadn’t at that time heard anything about the movie. Seeing the title sat me back a little: How can a woman be a king? But that was intended. Titling a movie can be critical to its success, and a little cognitive-dissonance can be intriguing. (Or distracting.) Obviously the movie couldn’t be called The African Queen (taken), and anyway, there’s John Boyega right there playing the actual king who, Henry-at-Agincourt-like, rallies his male—and female—troops to defend his country and way of life against an invasion by evil Europeans. Maybe I just had to wait until I saw the movie—which I would because the trailer had accomplished its objective—to get an answer to the conundrum posed by the title. Still, the trailer left me with some unease, something I couldn’t grasp.
[I need to deal with—to use an Africa-appropriate metaphor—the elephant in the veldt. Though it’s some deliberate cognitive-dissonance of my own, I’m not here actually reviewing the trailer. This is about the apparent subject of a movie I have not yet seen.]
The second time I saw the trailer, I saw—or heard—the flaw, and my initial unease curdled into dismay: In the trailer, Viola Davis plays Nanisca, a general training a generation of recruits seeking to join the Agojie, an all-female-warrior unit of the Dahomean military. At one point during the trailer, in her own inspirational speech to her neophyte warriors, I heard Nanisca say, We are Dahomey! Wait, what? Did she say Dahomey? This is about Dahomey? About training recruits for the army of Dahomey?
WTF? Did the producers not have internet access? Because this is all easily verifiable via a simple search: The Kingdom of Dahomey—there was such a place—was a heavily-militarized, ruthless, absolute monarchy that lasted for 300 years (1600 to 1904). It ruled a large region in what is now southern Benin and grew wealthy and powerful by selling captured Africans—as though harvesting them in some perverted human-agricultural operation—to slave-traders.
So in the trailer—it’s reasonable to suppose also in the movie—these women-warriors-to-be are part of a Dahomean military formerly tasked with harvesting humans for the slave trade but who are now being tasked with protecting the King from an existential threat posed by marauding, rapacious Europeans (which, in an African context, is redundant).
Recommended for You
An underdog resistance struggling to battle better-equipped colonizers is a common and stirring trope, but in the case of the Kingdom of Dahomey, it doesn’t work: The conquest of Dahomey is one of only a few instances in world history—the allied invasion of Nazi Germany, NATO’s intervention to stop wholesale ethnic cleansing in the Balkans are two—in which an intrusion and takeover by an outside power was inarguably better for that region’s people.
With royal approval, Great Britain effectively invented the commercial slave trade in 1663, and over the next 150-or-so years, British-sanctioned slavers took untold millions of slaves out of Africa and distributed them among Britain’s New World colonies. A major percentage of those slaves—two million by one estimate—were supplied by the Kingdom of Dahomey. British abolitionists fought for many decades to stop the slave trade, but there was big money at stake; it took until 1807 for the abolitionists to prevail and force Great Britain to finally outlaw the British commercial trade in human beings. Other nations picked up the shortfall, though, and the Dahomean monarchs continued to thrive.
Over succeeding decades, the British tried diplomacy to get the Dahomean state to stop supplying slaves, but the Dahomean despots refused, citing negative economic impact. Finally, in 1851-52, Great Britain blockaded Dahomean ports to prevent slave-trading ships from leaving. As a result of the blockade, the Kingdom of Dahomey in 1852 agreed to stop officially supplying slaves. That did not stop the practice: Private “merchants” continued to supply slaves from the region into the 1890s, by which time the French were seeking to conquer the Kingdom as part of the “Scramble for Africa.”
The Woman King premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in early September and will be released by Sony Pictures Releasing on September 16th. I have reached out to the principals involved in the production and release of the movie for comment about what seems like stereotypical Hollywood cluelessness (albeit taken to previously unrealized heights): Why does anyone think that it’s a good idea to make and release a movie that portrays as heroism an effort by African women to save a country that for hundreds of years had been a major, if not the major, source of African slaves? I’ve gotten no response except for a press officer from TIFF, who sent a polite—did I mention it’s Canada?—acknowledgement of my query.
I’m hoping someone will respond with a reasonable explanation. I anticipate something like, Although the Kingdom of Dahomey once supplied slaves, our movie is set during the period after they had stopped!” That would be like justifying a movie about a group of Jewish women training to stop the Allies from invading Nazi Germany and destroying the Nazi way of life because the Nazis had agreed to stop that whole extermination-camp business.
I guess I’ll just have to wait and see the movie to find out if I’m wrong.