The Woman King, directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood, stars Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and John Boyega. Produced by an all-woman team, this film, dealing with black pride and feminist concerns, takes its characters and story seriously. It is well worth the watch and the discussion that will inevitably follow.
The Woman King, Gina Prince-Blythewood‘s female-driven film about the Agojie, woman warriors who were part of the Dahomey kingdom (now part of Benin) of Africa, is an excellent watch if anyone is still dithering about whether to see it. The film has a rating in the mid-ninety percents on Rotten Tomatoes. Instead of the usual process of working through the plot (I’d have to divulge spoilers to do that) and the performances (they’re all great – no complaints), let’s look at the film along different lines.
We previously announced this movie as of interest to those who liked Black Panther and Wonder Woman. I think this is generally the way the film is being marketed and thus, perceived. It’s very different from those two films even though it belongs to a growing number of movies that validate Black pride and feminist concerns. This film does both. In fact, these are the reasons I saw Black Panther and Wonder Woman in the theatres, but neither film was truly memorable to me in terms of its characters, storylines, or emotional impact. I think Black Panther is the better of the two and the footage I have seen teased to us from the upcoming sequel featuring Shuri (Letitia Wright) looks incredible (Ryan Coogler is a filmmaker that shouldn’t be ignored) … but these genre films leave me wanting more.
I came of age with genre movies like Alien and The Terminator. They challenged the roles of women in genre films but also possessed impact in the way the story is disseminated (a real sense of terror and dread, a commentary on life – whether it was corporate greed in Alien or mechanization in The Terminator). It felt as if the films were asking significant questions, exploring important themes, and pushing boundaries – things which genre movies rarely do today. If the feminist value of Wonder Woman simply as a female superhero kicking ass instead of a male one, without any genuine commentary or stakes, we haven’t actually advanced. I’d argue that we’ve regressed. Today, most comics and sci-fi themed movies amount to CGI and distraction. They are about escape.
The Woman King puts character, conflict, and theme back in the foreground. You cannot have a good film without these aspects taken seriously. The characterization in this new film produces stakes and dilemmas that matter and aren’t easily resolved. They require thought and participation on the part of the audience to resolve them. Even if the resolutions aren’t perfect, the audience’s engagement becomes worthwhile. As a result, the audience truly cares about what happens to the characters. They have flaws which contribute to the events that affect their lives. In terms of theme, the film tackles Black pride and feminist concerns head-on. Both are dealt with effectively and with seriousness. My only complaint (and once again, we’re going in to spoiler territory here) is that at the end of the film, when Viola Davis’s character (one of the film’s two main protagonists) has to reckon with her differences with her king (John Boyega), everything is resolved positively and everyone is happy at the end. I think it would have been a more powerful movie, perhaps an even more feminist movie, if it recognized that there really cannot be an ideal reconciliation between men and women in our world. At least, right now.
The film makes the right move with the sudden differences that arise between Davis and Boyega’s characters; it is part of the series of plot developments that have stakes and make a real impact. The desire to resolve everything amicably is a fantasy I have to question. To that effect, I also have to ponder the decision to resolve the questions around slavery which are central to the film. I applaud this film for being the first Black pride film I have seen that squarely recognizes the involvement of African tribes in the slave trade, pointing to the complexity of the situation and of human nature. The film then progresses to try and resolve this problem in a way that is not quite historical or believable, but I am okay with that too. The film has received a lot of criticism for its lack of historical accuracy.
The reason why I am okay with most of the film’s choices is because I think it truly belongs to the fantasy or historical fantasy genre; we should not think of it as a historical film. The characters are noble theatrical characters, despite their personal flaws, and talk in exalted language – in this way, they are sort of Shakespearean. When we look at Shakespeare’s plays, we don’t ever think they are historically accurate (the Bard always played up to his Tudor patrons), but we admire them for the themes, characters, philosophy, language, and craft inherent in them. When we admire The Iliad, we don’t ever think of it as an account of the actual Trojan war; we admire its epic, literary, and heroic qualities. When we watch period films, such as Jane Austen adaptations, we don’t expect these films to show the gritty reality of life amongst the poor during Regency times – we expect exalted dialogue, a sense of drama or even melodrama, and lavish costumes and sets. We are okay with not getting a socio-realist documentary. We should give the same regard to The Woman King, not view it as a distraction or a historical film but as an epic poem worth ruminating on.
As a person of colour who is sympathetic to the plight of Black people in North America, I think there will always be difficult choices to be made in entertainment: whether to produce something that reflects the harsh reality of the way things are (think about the cynical ethos of blaxploitation films in the seventies, for example) or to create an ideal of the way things ought to be. In creating a vision of the ideal, we cannot render characters and situations that are fully human because this reality always leads to imperfect conclusions. That is the nature of our human condition. Previous generations recognized this, but I think the modern era is really struggling to see beyond things in ideal terms. Part of the reason why Black pride may not concern itself with African Americans looking back to their roots in Africa as much as it used to (it was more prominent from the 1960s to the 90s when Black people adopted fashions that embodied tribal designs and the African colours and an idea of idealized life before colonialism) is because so much time has passed since migrations across the middle passage – Black people must contend with being American or Canadian first and foremost (and those nations must contend with them as citizens having as much right to be there as others).
The Woman King throws all these old conversations into relief for a new generation. If other films are going to follow its example, I would prefer that they didn’t have the characters talk in Africanized accents. This only serves to distance the themes of the film from its intended audience and it is always a very self-conscious device. It’s why two audience members behind me kept giggling throughout the film though it is fairly serious. My friend who accompanied me, and who equally liked the film, felt that there is just too much racism in America and Canada for a very wide market to embrace this movie, but I’d like to see him proven wrong. I’d like to see this film get as much love and respect from Black people as Black Panther. This is the film I’d like to see win a couple of major awards because it takes its plot and characters seriously. It is helmed by a Black director, but the women who got the project rolling are Maria Bello (who became interested in the topic as a viable topic for success after visiting Benin) and producer Cathy Schulman, two white women. All the principal credits including that of cinematographer (Polly Morgan) belong to women which I think of as nothing less than a coup. Where it disappoints for me are the actual fighting sequences and their choreography (a major component of the film), which don’t quite land or leave an impact. But this might be because I am male and am preferential to the kind of action that leaves a dark impact, a preference and style that has probably come down to us from Westerns. The cinematography on the other hand, using warm reds and greens and no discernible CGI, is gorgeous. All in all, it is a film worth of wide viewing and discussion.