geezer cinema/film fatales #151/african-american directors series: the woman king (gina prince-bythewood, 2022)
The Woman King delivers on everything promised in the trailer: great action, powerful women, inspiring story.
Tony and Oscar winner Viola Davis is as you've never seen her before, and it is inspiring to have a black woman in her mid-50s personify the action heroine. There are fine performances throughout the movie, so many that it's not fair to single out anyone in particular (but I'm going to do it anyway and mention Lashana Lynch). Gina Prince-Bythewood gives us strong and coherent action scenes (shoutout to fight choreographer Jénel Stevens). She pulls this off on a budget of only $50 million. Compare that to the $70 million she had to work with on The Old Guard, a solid actioner with Charlize Theron that was released on Netflix, and you'll ask yourself why after proving her action chops, Prince-Bythewood got a smaller budget to make a film centered on Black people.
But then there's the controversy, and while I tended to agree with Prince-Bythewood, who said "You cannot win an argument on Twitter", and I thought this was another case of people condemning a movie before they'd seen it, now I'm not so sure. The Woman King plays as intended if you don't know any of the history of Dahomey. But the more you learn about the history, the more problematic The Woman King becomes. (Julian Lucas has an excellent piece in The New Yorker that illuminates this.) The Woman King does acknowledge some of Dahomey's participation in the slave trade, but it deflects that history to make a "better" story. In the movie, the slave trading is connected to the Oyo Empire, who are the enemies of Dahomey, and the fight led by the Agojie (Amazons) is against slavery. In reality, Dahomey was complicit in the slave trade. As Lucas notes, "'The Woman King' chooses to make resistance to slavery its moral compass, then misrepresents a kingdom that trafficked tens of thousands", and "The film’s conceit is, charitably, an elaborate exercise in wishful thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice if Dahomey’s brave women warriors had also been fighters for justice?"
These are all worthy of discussion ... I have learned more about the history of Dahomey from reading about the protests against the film. As good as the movie is, I'm a bit surprised by the clunkiness of the responses from Prince-Bythewood and Davis to the criticisms. Davis claimed "Most of the story is fictionalized. It has to be." In the same interview, Julius Tennon (a producer on the film who also acts in it and is Davis' husband) says "It's history but we have to take license. We have to entertain people."
This may be why The Woman King, for all its excellence, isn't as good as Black Panther. The latter film is entirely fictional, and so the story can be reflective of reality without needing to copy it. The Woman King wants us to think it's based on fact, but then alters facts to "entertain people".