A month ago, Hollywood Progressive posted a critique I wrote about The Woman King’s movie trailer. I wrote that piece out of dismay. I could not believe that anyone would make, much less release, a “based on true events” film that seemed, at least in the trailer, to glorify the efforts of a group of Black women warriors to save their nation—Dahomey—and thus enable their nation’s subsequent 75 years of active participation in and joyful profit from supplying innumerable slaves—one estimate is two million captured African men, women, and children—to slave traders.
I have now seen The Woman King. Yes, they have made that very film.
At the time I wrote that earlier piece, I wondered if those involved in its production had had access to the internet—the horrifying history of Dahomey is just a few clicks away. I did a quick Google, and found that yes, they had. My dismay was based on my failing to account for the human genius for self-justifying hogwash.
Reading the principals’ comments, it quickly becomes clear that they knew they had a problem and either didn’t care or self-hypnotized with their rationalizations; and then they thought those rationalizations would fool everybody else. Toward that end, using a strategy pioneered by Big Tobacco explaining away lung cancer and Big Oil explaining away global warming, they hired experts to explain how The Woman King is actually anti-slavery. They tried to Hollywood-wash it.
Since that earlier review, people who have seen the film have extolled its acting, its depiction of women as every bit the equals of men, and of African culture as advanced and nuanced. Others have noticed what I did—what Kurtz called the horror—and are as dismayed as I.
Some outraged viewers are calling for a boycott.
I am opposed to boycotts. I could write pages about why, but I won’t—at least not here. I will however mention a couple of my reasons:
- Particularly when it involves films, books, ideas, isms, or points of view, I resent being denied agency, resent being told what to think or do, resent feeling I can’t be trusted to make up my own mind. Ultimately, agency is what a boycott tries to deny. In the end, a boycott says, You’re too mentally fragile to withstand these ideas, and I resent that;
- When there’s a drive to ban or boycott films, books, artwork, or businesses, there is always tension between judging a work or product only on its merit; judging a work or product by peripheral but associated ideas; judging a work or product by ideas associated with its creator; or, most fraught, judging a work or product by an association imposed by a random reader or viewer or consumer.
Arguments about these issues often overshadow the work itself, and can become violent.
In Among School Children, W. B. Yeats asks How can we know the dancer from the dance? Yeats’s innate romanticism and humanism conflate human and act, asserting that they are the same. But humans can separate the dancer from the dance, can analyze, can judge a work separate from its creator’s intentions and beliefs. In fact, the ability to parse these issues is a big chunk of what makes us human. Is food less tasty to a right-winger if it turns out the chef is progressive? Should my neighbor, an Orthodox Jew, not have bought a Ford—which she loves—because Henry Ford was an anti-Semite? Should I boycott El Coyote because I don’t share the owner’s politics? Should I shun Chick-Fil-A because its company-funded-foundation contributed to the Salvation Army and the Salvation Army supported anti-LGBTQ causes? It’s exhausting. But I don’t want others making those choices for me.
Reasonable people may disagree. We are (for the moment) free to make up our minds about the value and efficacy of boycotts; for me, personally, they’re un-American. So although I am dismayed by The Woman King, this is explicitly not a call for a boycott. By all means see the film. Make up your own mind. Admire some of its acting. (In my view, Viola Davis’s portrayal of General Nanisca, the leader of the women warriors, is transcendent while John Boyega’s turn as King Ghezo, the leader of Dahomey, is as indistinct as Davis’s Nanisca is sharp.) Appreciate its convincing evocation of a world. Delight in its cinematography. Approve its editing. Acclaim its costumes. (That’s it. My thesaurus is exhausted.)
Separate the dancer from the dance.
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My own separation: The Woman King film—the dance—is technically polished but The Woman King story—the dancer—is spiritually afflicted.
I’m not someone who thinks that a fiction fails if it isn’t scrupulously true to life. But a fiction sets its own paradigm, and this film is deliberately trading on a “true events” trope; it seems fair to judge it in relation to those true events. And the things that The Woman King gets wrong aren’t just a few nit-picky details. The script—aided by the self-justifying off-screen comments of the film’s principals—pretzels itself while attempting to reconcile its irreconcilable central conundrum: Nanisca’s female warriors, whose ferocity forms the film’s core, succeed in destroying the Oyo, the subjugators to whom Dahomey has been paying tribute, so that Dahomey can then spend the subsequent 75 years growing even richer off the slave trade.
In a film that insists on brandishing its verisimilitude as a defensive weapon, there is one especially jarring moment: Ghezo, who is speaking fluent Portuguese with a visiting slave trader—commands the trader to show Ghezo respect by speaking in the his own language. Which, apparently is English, albeit with a kind of universal African lilt.
Certainly it is vital that films be made that tell the stories of and empower the marginalized, but this film implies that women achieve equality and freedom by cloistering themselves in combat-training convents where they chastely marry their King (who has a harem); or that women achieve equality and freedom when they can kill men in ferocious tribal battles involving incredibly vicious, bloody, Kung Fu-like hand-to-hand combat.
And I still don’t know why it’s called The Woman King (which is what, at the end of the film, Ghezo anoints the victorious Nanisca). Isn’t a woman king a queen? (Neither Victoria nor either Elizabeth—and they were all formidable—felt the need to be called something other than queen. Even if one objects that queen is diminutive but king is hopelessly gendered, thus requiring a non-gendered alternative, why wouldn’t Monarch work? Say it a few times—Monarch George, Monarch Elizabeth—and it will soon stop sounding awkward.) Is Ghezo worried about hurting Nanisca’s feelings, thinking that she might resent the diminutive because she’s butch? Or are we seeing Ghezo applying the principle of happy wife, happy life? Because of all the sexist clichés a viewer has a reasonable expectation not to find in an in-your-face feminist film, it’s a jealousy-based rivalry between Ghezo’s haughty, principle concubine, and his proud, chaste general.
Yet there it is, sitting like a pustule in front of god and everybody: a not-quite-fully-developed subplot meowing between Ghezo’s favorite concubine and his favorite warrior nun. But is it not to be expected? They are, after all, women, and are not women always pettily jealous of one another? Especially in movies? So does Ghezo call Nanisca a Woman King because he just doesn’t want to deal with all that cattiness ? Is that why the film is called The Woman King? I really have no idea.
It is clear why women, particularly those in any way connected to the film industry, would suffer from Harvey Weinstein PTSD and want revenge. And The Woman King’s bad guy, the violent, rapist, Oyo leader Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), who is shown repeatedly raping Nanisca when she is a young captive, is a Harvey Weinstein look-alike, huge, hairy, and scary. But all the mixed motives leave The Woman King a muddle, a curdled mix of feminism, anti-racism, rationalization, and cynicism.
It is a film-making axiom: If you want to know whether a film is working, turn off the sound. If you turn off The Woman King’s sound, it will be virtually indistinguishable from nearly every other racist, exploitive, set-in-Africa movie ever made, depicting Africa as a place of constant, brutal, internecine violence interrupted by group dancing with spears and shields. (Except those earlier movies were less violent.)
So yes, of course, it’s important—crucial—to make films by and about marginalized people. But at any price? Does it improve the human condition to make a film that camouflages two hours of barbaric violence in heroic garb? To make films that shamelessly and cynically draft behind the success of Black Panther while exploiting #MeToo and BLM? To justify using marginalized people as human props for profit?
Make up your own mind. Separate the dancer from the dance.
Maybe not now, maybe not soon, but eventually, every participant in The Woman King who has a conscience and does any amount of self-interrogation will regret having been part of it.
My initial review was of The Woman King’s trailer. I was dismayed. Now that I’ve seen the film, I’m still dismayed: The Woman King is a decently-done abomination, and not all the Hollywood-washing that money can buy will change that.