Monday, October 3, 2022

'The Woman King' Is Bad News

 From National Review:

Historical fraudulence is a problem, but the reasons behind it are what cause alarm. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood and screenwriters Dana Stevens and Maria Bello gainsay Dahomey’s role in the slave trade, trivializing the complications of that original sin. Instead, they offer another Millennial gender-flip, conceived to further sexual confusion via racial frustration and feminist anger.

This approach cannot be taken seriously because, like Black Panther and The Lion King, The Woman King is juvenile. The film’s comic-book premise treats black audiences like children. That adolescent kick over hair-pulling catfights is extended into an almost laughable, pseudo-political history lesson pitting women against men. Consider it deriving from Black Lives Matter’s attack on the black family, honoring butch women as standard-bearers in the battle against toxic, ineffectual masculinity.

Only teenagers should fall for this nonsense. Prince-Bythewood’s usual boast about telling marginal black stories (Love and Basketball, Beyond the Lights, The Secret Life of Bees) is motivated by the notion that she is correcting Hollywood’s neglect. Thus, she gives us Dahomey as Wakanda, a made-up history for uninformed viewers who feel so “unseen” that they can be robbed and conned again.

What benefit comes from proffering the delusions of the film’s two big battle scenes? The Agojie fight the slave-trading Oyo and then against European slavers, and the women emasculate and devastate the men. Bad feminism is compounded by the offense of trafficking in slavery simply as an excuse for action-movie violence.

Narrowly defining womanhood as consisting of masculine traits, The Woman King actually contradicts the virtues of diaspora-based Afrocentricity. The film uses period history to parallel contemporary resentments. (There’s even an effeminate court sage dressed in lavender.) Nanisca asserts the valor of being “feared, paid for your work” and having “your opinions heard.” Commanding her troops with “we fight or we die,” she sounds like Hillary Clinton, drunk on that purse-hidden hot sauce.

Maybe Prince-Bythewood has tapped into something that the two lousy Wonder Woman movies missed, but whatever it is, it isn’t excitement. Her battle scenes (supposedly based on Mel Gibson’s Braveheart) are haphazard, with poor continuity. These black Amazon battles, featuring sharp, bloody, clawlike fingernails — sorority-house celebratory rituals with banshee ululations — are mere novelties.

Anger is Viola Davis’s specialty, but it isn’t enough to justify this distortion of black African heritage and grievance from way back. Nanisca’s leadership focus on physical strength, force, and power — not love or knowledge — is just truculent. Figuring out its tradition source is as frustrating as trying to place Nanisca’s odd patois. She represents a naïve Hollywood-Marxist-materialist view of third-world rebellion, the history that Frantz Fanon, John Henrik Clarke, and Ivan Van Sertima made credible. Davis reduces it to sporting a stylish upswept Afro; she struts the way Cardi B twerks — superficial feminine postures. Nanisca’s stoicism (“You are powerful, love makes you weak”) betrays the camaraderie and spirituality that should be at the heart of Afrocentricity.

Claiming that “the white man has brought evil here” makes black tribal enslavement and warfare sound Edenic. Has Prince-Bythewood never heard “King and Chief must have had a big beef / Because of that / Now I grit my teeth,” that ingenious précis of the African slave trade in Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It”?

Falling way short of the magnificent “Can’t Truss It,” The Woman King cannot be trusted. Nanisca’s backstory is a pitiful steal of Sethe’s painful matriarch memory in Beloved. Her protégé Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) goes through an endurance test that Eddie Murphy and Craig Brewer had affectionately satirized in Coming 2 America. The emphasis on feminine audacity is a trashy version of Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, and dismissing Yoruba and Christian religious conflict is inexcusably trite after Haile Gerima’s Sankofa. The only male character of note is the Dahoman King Ghezo, who reinstated the slave trade before being deposed (a role reduced here to John Boyega’s performing with the same misdirection as in his portrayal of Star Wars’ Finn). (Read more.)


On the true history of Dahomey, founded on selling other tribes into slavery. From UnHerd:

And although this was a story in which European slave-traders played a leading role, the women warriors of Dahomey were hardly innocent. Quite the reverse. As Araujo notes, The Woman King opens with a scene in which the Adojie attack a neighbouring village, killing the men but chivalrously sparing the women. This is pure fiction, though. In reality, she writes, “the soldiers of the Dahomean army (both women and men) would take the healthy, younger villagers as prisoners and walk them to Dahomey’s capital, Abomey”. Here some would become local slaves, others butchered in human sacrifices. But “most would be transported to the coast, where they would be sold, and board slave ships sailing to the Americas, especially Brazil”.

This isn’t the only distortion of the truth. In the film, King Ghezo is persuaded to end Dahomey’s reliance on European slave-traders and embrace palm-oil production instead. But this is nonsense. Indeed, to his neighbours, the idea that he and his Amazon warriors were reforming liberators would have seemed downright obscene. In reality, Ghezo was as brutal and self-interested as any European imperialist. When he seized the throne in 1818, one of his first acts was to punish his family rivals by selling them into slavery. And for much of his reign he actively resisted pressure from Europe to end the trade in human beings, since by the 1830s and 1840s the British were vigorously trying to stamp it out, even blockading his coastline with Royal Navy ships.

Does all this matter? Maybe not. To repeat: all historical films turn fact into fiction. If you go to Hollywood for your history, that’s your problem, not theirs. Addressing her critics in Variety, Viola Davis insisted that a movie is just, well, a movie. “If we just told a history lesson, which we very well could have, that would be a documentary,” she said bluntly. “Unfortunately, people wouldn’t be in the theaters.” As for John Boyega, he fell back on the kind of impenetrable gibberish for which actors have long been admired across the world. “Art can live in a moral or immoral space and could sometimes just be about shining a light on human nature, history, and the reality of that conflict,” he said gnomically. “So, for me, including that just shows that there is a way in which we can embrace stories that accept the fact that humanity is not perfect, while also being entertaining and something you can learn from.”

What does that mean? I suspect we will never know.

But because it’s Africa and it’s slavery, some people don’t see this as a trivial matter at all. A month ago the New York Times’s Nikole Hannah-Jones, mastermind of the crazy “1619 Project” to rewrite all American history around the theme of slavery, issued an ominous warning that she was looking forward to seeing “how a movie that seems to glorify the all-female military unit of the Dahomey deals with the fact that this kingdom derived its wealth from capturing Africans for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade”. The New Yorker, poring over the film’s many distortions, condemned it as not merely “muddled” and “disingenuous” but a “cynical distortion of history”. (Read more.)

From Insider:

Dahomey first rose to power as a centralized and militarized kingdom in West Africa in the 17th century. It wasn't until the 18th century, during the peak of the Atlantic slave trade, that the kingdom expanded its might.

In 1727, Dahomey conquered the coastal Kingdom of Hueda, taking control of the port city Ouidah. This would become its main base for trade with European powers, and marked the start of its active participation in slave trade.

Dahomey soon became a key player in the trafficking of Africans, which proved to be one of the most profitable exports at the time, according to Manning. Armed with muskets they obtained from foreign nations through their export of slaves and other goods, Dahomey's armies captured people from nearby kingdoms and villages to fuel their supply of slaves.

Dahomey's involvement in the slave trade was fueled by European demand for cheap labor. Africans were left with scant choices: Would they benefit from this opportunity to steal people and sell them, run away, or fight back against foreign powers? (Read more.)


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