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In "Woman King speaks the truth" in the LA Times’s Calendar section of Tuesday, September 28, 2022, Times staff writer Sonaiya Kelley initially conjures both Winston Churchill and Christopher Columbus, then provides a reductive view of what Black Americans are taught of their history—“that [it] begins with the onset of chattel slavery.” Kelley then launches a strident defense of The Woman King by asserting that "despite [there being] relatively few reputable sources online offering information about the time period and location in which the film is set—a small faction of people on social media have accused the film of historical revisionism."

Despite Kelley’s prejudicial word choices ("reputable," "online," "small faction," "social media") in her intense rebuttal to what she characterizes as accusations of historical revisionism infusing criticisms of the film, the fact is that no one can sensibly accuse The Woman King of historical revisionism because there is little history to revise.

What people are accusing The Woman King of is not historical revisionism but historical cherry-picking. The sparse, extant history of the period describes a power struggle between the Kingdom of Dahomey and what Kelley spins as the “wealthy, Western-influenced Oyo Empire.” After Dahomey’s victory, which The Woman King presents as due largely to the fierce female fighters the film glamorizes, the historical Dahomey took over the Oyo Empire and became the wealthy Dahomean Empire. Is the take-away that Dahomey then rejected the Oyo’s “Western influence” and, buttressed by those same fierce female fighters, spent the next 75 or so years supplying slaves to the Atlantic slave trade, but in a purer, African-influenced way? Assuming we can successfully parse what Kelley’s distinction actually means, no historical evidence supports this.

The problem with The Woman King is not that it revises history; every history revises history. The problem is that the filmmakers, in their zeal to dramatize both the capabilities of women and a little known period of African history—and good on them—have chosen to ignore the context, a horrific era of government-sanctioned, industrial-scale, commercial slavery in which for nearly 300 years Dahomey was a willing participant. The Woman King’s fierce female fighters enable Dahomey to continue that shameful practice from the film's fictional setting in 1823 until the “true events” end of that century.

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Defenders of The Woman King seem to feel that this sin—the slave in the room—is absolved by having a few characters pronounce that slavery is a bad thing, as though several lines of literal lip service are sufficient to resolve a small conundrum. They seem genuinely befuddled that those several lines, plus a barrage of post-release, off-point quotes from people with fuzzy relevance—the film’s “historical consultant [is] directly related to [one of the woman warriors]” and is from the area—haven’t convinced everyone the film is an anti-slavery manifesto.

As an example of an off-point distraction: Kelley quotes the historical consultant, who says, “It’s a misconception that Dahomey was nothing other than a state involved in the slave trade.” But no one has said, “Dahomey was nothing other than a state involved in the slave trade.” As much as the filmmakers would like to distract us from the film’s obvious flaw—portraying female fighters whose efforts enable the continuation of slavery—the film’s subject is not a look at the myriad facets of Dahomean culture. The Woman King is not a movie about Dahomey’s sophisticated, nuanced civilization; it is a movie principally about one violent, bloody facet of that civilization. What is on point, what critics are objecting to, is not historical revisionism but the film’s taking wholly out of horrific historical context a truly awful moment in African and human history and pretending that that context shouldn’t color (sorry) our assessment of that moment.

It is the filmmakers who have stressed, and who continue to stress, The Woman King’s realism, its “based on true events” DNA. Yet in virtually the next breath they insist that the film should be judged as fiction. Who can blame them for wanting both things to be true?

The headline of Kelley’s essay says the film speaks the truth. [Italics mine.] Even in this era of lax journalistic standards and spotty editorial oversight, her piece stands out as opinion unembarrassedly presented as fact.

The Woman King does speak the truth. It’s just not the truth the filmmakers, Kelley, and the advertising-starved LA Times want us to hear. No studio public relations department could ask for more.