The new film pretends to be historical but in fact whitewashes the reality of a brutal slave trading tribe to appease modern audiences
A short piece for you all today, this time on a pandering Hollywood blockbuster called The Woman King.
In the lead-up to the film's release (which is in theaters today, September 16), if you've been on any social media platform you've no doubt seen claims that The Woman King is an "inspirational" triumph for women and black culture that is based on a true story.
To say The Woman King is based on a true story though is a bit of a stretch.
It's main premise is true - the Kingdom of Dahomey was a real West African kingdom that rose to power by conquering cities on the Atlantic coast, and they sported an all-female military regiment called the Agojie (or Dahomey Amazons) that were classed as elites in Dahomey society.
The brutal aspects of the Agojie and the Dahomey's society in general are certainly toned down for the film, which is understandable given how graphic it would be, but the truth is important for those that believe the film's characters accurately portray the people of the time.
The Agojie regularly conducted slave raids, where other tribes were stormed and had the unfitting hacked to bits in savage displays of violence, beheadings and the removal of victim's jaws being common forms of execution.
The Agojie would often carry severed heads back to their villages following their conquests, and in addition to keeping slaves for themselves like most other societies at the time, they would sell others across the Atlantic, which is what brought the Kingdom of Dahomey its wealth.
They also held regular rituals of sacrifice in which hundreds of slaves would be brutally executed at once, something that does not appear in the film.
The movie does acknowledge the Kingdom's role in slavery (to a degree), however the film's main protagonist, the fictional Nanisca (played by Viola Davis) is given the role of the story's moral compass.
The name Nanisca is likely a nod to a young teenage Agojie recruit by that name that was written about by a French naval officer in 1889 - according to his writings, for Nanisca's initiation into the Agojie, she was tasked with making her first kill.
Nanisca drew her sword and swung several times at the neck of her bound and helpless victim, nearly decapitating them. She then reportedly severed the remaining flesh keeping the deceased prisoner's head attached to their body before she "squeezed the blood off of her weapon and swallowed it". Inspirational indeed.
In the film, the hero Nanisca opposes the morality of slavery and suggests to the King of Dahomey that they trade in palm oil instead.
This is where Hollywood has taken the most drastic "artistic liberty" with the history of the Agojie.
There are no records of any Agojie leader (or member for that matter) ever raising concerns or arguing against the morality of slavery (or ritualistic slayings, or torture, or...).
Though the film takes place in the 1820's, it does blend in some later elements from the region (like the threat of European colonization that loomed decades later, and ultimately occurred when the French colonized the kingdom in the 1890's) and it appears the writers are trying to tie in the Agojie's opposition to trading slaves across the Atlantic that would come up decades later.
The problem is they're attributing morals to a group that it never had - when the British Empire sought to put an end to the Atlantic slave trade, the Kingdom of Dahomey was split in its society over whether they should continue the practice and risk the wrath of Britain.
It's true the Agojie opposed continuing the Atlantic trade, but not over moral reasons - they wanted to keep relations with the Brits open and believed the selling of palm oils would be a viable alternative.
So far this sounds like the film got it mostly correct, except for the fact that even when they opposed the Atlantic slave trade, the Agojie did not ever oppose slavery - they continued capturing and using slaves, as well as conducting their ritual sacrifices, with no mention of any moral quandary in the process.
The Agojie's objection to the Atlantic slave trade was specifically a political position that sought to keep them out of a war with Britain, and it certainly had nothing to do with the morality of the practice - that logical leap was made by this movie's writers and is definitely an intentional spin to present the film's characters in a positive light. The idea that this however was an accurate portrayal of the Agojie or any of its leaders is laughable at best, but Hollywood counts on people not bothering to test their claims.
The Dahomey would later sign treaties with the British that promised to end their participation in the slave trade across the Atlantic, but when palm oils and other exports proved much less lucrative for the kingdom, the Dahomey went back to the practice up until their war with the French near the turn of the century.
In the entire history of the Dahomey Kingdom, including the brief period where they stopped shipping slaves across the Atlantic, there was never a time that they didn't own, torture, and kill slaves, and there is not a single record or indication that any figure in its history ever had any moral objection to the practice.
In short, in any historically accurate setting the Agojie and the Kingdom of Dahomey would be the villains of the story, or at the very best an equal evil to other such groups at the time.
Movies have always taken plenty of liberties when portraying historical matters, so it's always important not to take what you see on the screen too literally. When people are using a film to push a political agenda and try to use it to "inspire" a community of people, it becomes much more important to get the facts.
Praising a "powerful group of women" truly becomes satirical when those women were brutal slavers renowned for their savagery.
Of course, if you listen to voices in Hollywood like the film's star Viola Davis, if The Woman King isn't a big hit with audiences (critics have already predictably gushed over the film, so "stunning and brave") and doesn't realize huge success at the box office, it's the audience's fault in failing to "support black women".
The actress went so far as to say that those who don't see The Woman King are "supporting the narrative that black women cannot lead the box office globally" - as if she is the sole representative of black women everywhere.
There are plenty of true stories about inspirational black women and groups - the tale of the Agojie and the Kingdom of Dahomey is simply not one of them.