The Woman King stills

Source: Courtesy / Sony Pictures

There’s been a lot of buzz and excitement over the release of the trailer for The Woman King, starring Oscar and Emmy-winning actress Viola Davis who co-produced the film with Gina Prince-Bythewood.  The film is scheduled to hit theaters on September 16.

In this historical epic, we are taken back to the 19th century and placed in the West African kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin) where we are mesmerized by the Agojie, once dubbed by Europeans as a “small black Sparta” because of their martial excellence and ferocity. We are taken into the interior of this warrior unit which protects the king at all costs, as we witness General Nanisca, played by Davis, train the next generation of recruits, which includes Nawi, played by Thuso Mbedu.

This fierce, ruthless, highly disciplined, all-woman militia, with their sculpted bodies and glossy skin, feels no pain and fears nothing.  Nothing.  And, they slaughter colonizers coming to enslave and rape the whole continent of its raw materials and human capital.  

Yes, of course, we know how the true historical story ends for the Motherland and the descendants of millions of enslaved people stolen and displaced throughout the Diaspora.

European powers – Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Italy – ultimately colonized Africa by turning its 10,000 decentralized and centralized states into 54 colonial state systems.  European invaders were able to accomplish this not only because they had more powerful weaponry, but there were rivalries between African kings and chiefs and some of them made unholy alliances with the colonizers. On top of that, droughts, locust outbreaks and cattle, sheep and goat plagues, crop failures, food shortages and exposure to diseases that Europeans were already immune to, all weakened Africans ability to conquer their oppressors.  History also tells us that colonizers used the bodies of Black women as ethnographic spectacles for scientific inquiry and museum exhibitions in Europe to satiate their sexual fetishes.

Despite what I know about this history, I am still here for the mental escape, for stories about resistance, and even a bit of speculative fiction fantasy.  

While living in these perilous times and deluged by an endless cavalcade of oppression, stories of people facing brutal conditions and standing up to the evils of power can help us see what is possible.  Not to mention, films like The Woman King are a welcome relief from the replay of Hollywood’s typical commercialized slavery trauma porn, discrimination, and racism that never fail to reopen old wounds to remind Black folks of our transgenerational serial brutalization.  So, when I saw The Woman King trailer, I was excited.  “This is like the Dora Milaje 2.0.  Yes, I am here for it!” I told a friend.

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But then, I took a second look.

I always tell my media literacy students that it is important to be critical consumers of popular culture, and so we must always take another careful second look.  When we see ads, commercials, film trailers and such, it is easy to be titillated by the sumptuous emotional, auditory and visual effects.  Neuro-marketing techniques directly influence our subconscious thoughts and influence our decisions without us even realizing it. Trailers are ostensibly designed to make us want to spend our money to see the film. But sometimes the colors, sounds and other production tricks that stir our desires for the product can obfuscate some hideous elements and old tropes that reveal biases.

So here we are presented with a historical drama about powerful Black women, who struck fear in the hearts of European colonizers as they protected their homes and communities from invasion. Foreboding music plays. The voiceover says, “An evil is coming.” We see Europeans aggressively riding on horses. Eighteen seconds in, two stringy-haired white men dressed in high-collared shirts and fitted waistcoats with bloodlust in their eyes make their appearance on the screen. The next two minutes are clips of these Black warrior women engaged in intense training and killing. But then we get to minute 2:05 and we see a kiss between General Nanisca’s protégé Nawi and one of the “evil” white men we saw at the beginning of the trailer.

Okay, okay, okay – I know, it’s only the trailer.  We don’t have all the facts yet. We haven’t seen the chronology of the scenes leading up to this moment.  But what the trailer shows is a mutual passionate kiss. Nawi is not resisting. They appear to be in some dark intimate space. Perhaps they are secret lovers?  Maybe they are in captivity? Or best-case scenario is that it was a setup. Historical accounts reveal that some European men made the mistake of being lured to bed by these warriors only to have their throats slit.

The historical record also tells us that the Dahomey were not allowed to have children or marry (though they were legally married to the king who did not sleep with them). Many of them were virgins and took a vow of celibacy. So, unless Nawi was about to castrate this colonizer’s bits or slit his throat, I must ask: why did the producers choose to frame this white man’s character in this way?  

Here we are in a part of the world where polygamy was common and pre-colonial sexuality and gender identities were more fluid.  But there are no other teasers of love scenes between Africans in this trailer – between the king and his other wives or even queer relationships between the Agojie. So why was it necessary to feature this flash of intimacy between a merciless highly trained and tested African warrior woman and a thieving genocidal white man that she is supposed to kill to protect the king and home?  

There’s not a look of love or sign of affection between Africans in this trailer. But the only glimpse of romance or sexuality we see is between Nawi and a white enslaver?

I showed this trailer to women while I was at my hair salon in D.C. The stylist twisting my dreadlocks was aghast.

“Why they got her kissin’ that white man?  Ugh,” she grimaced.

That kiss is totally unnecessary, and it only exists to satisfy white male viewers. It ain’t for Black folks.  Something tells me that this dude is going to be cast as “the good one.”  

The good white man colonizer character goes all the way back to the early 20th century. There’s the Bronze Bride (1917), The Forbidden City (1918), The Heart of Wetona(1919), The Toll of the Sea (1922), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), Princess Tam Tam (1935), Broken Arrow (1950), Captain John Smith and Pocahontas (1953), The Purple Plane (1954), White Feather (1955), The Indian Fighter (1955), Sayonara (1957), China Doll (1957), The World of Suzie Wong(1960), The Landlord (1970).  There are dozens more of these cinematic portrayals about white men gaining sexual access to women of color in places rife with war and discrimination– some recent examples include Dances with Wolves, Monster’s Ball, Avatar, and The Great Wall.

While Davis’ presence is a huge draw to this film, The Woman King was written by two white women, Maria Bellow (best known as an actress whose bio lists a recurring role on ER) and Dana Stevens, whose well-known screenplays include Fatherhood with Kevin Hart, City of Angels, and For Love of the Game. The list of producers includes Bello, along with Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon who have their own production company.

Hollywood’s racial politics lean heavily on this problematic interracial sex trope. We can’t seem to have white men in Black stories without them being sexually validated by a Black woman’s body and attention. This is a congenital fetish, and a reflection of white folks pushing back against their impending demographic decline, similar to the sudden deluge of interracial commercials featuring white men with Black women. The brief kiss we see in the trailer appears to be a redemptive arc for this white man. It says that there is always some good white man, that no matter what we do to you – rape, steal, colonize, enslave, kill – some of us white men are so amazing that Black women, including their fiercest warriors, can’t get away and will always fall for some colonizer sex.

This reminds me of that insulting 2019 Ancestry.com commercial that caused controversy. The ad, titled “Inseparable,” shows a white man “romantically” wooing a Black woman in the slave-owning South. They’re running down a street when he pulls a gold ring from his pocket and offers her “an escape to the North” where they can be together. The ad, which was posted to Ancestry.com’s YouTube channel, garnered so much criticism that they pulled it with the typical “apology,” saying that the ad was intended to represent an important story from history, that they “very much appreciate the feedback we have receive and apologize for any offense that the ad may have caused.”

Despite the millions of stories of Black folks resisting and escaping from enslavement, trying to have legitimate marriages and reunite with families, this was the story that Ancestry chose to highlight.

Why is it that in spite of abundant opportunities to produce screen content, there is still little, or nothing made that truly represents Black stories without centering at least one white character and trope?

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I want to see The Woman King – a big budget action film with Black people. At the same time, I’ve accepted that I am a critical movie consumer – that I can enjoy what I’m watching while also finding parts of it offensive, problematic, and frustrating.

These story dynamics can be sneaky and appeal to Black people’s overall humanity and willingness to fall for an exception to the colonial rule. What it does is promote the idea of overall colonial dominance through assimilation, a white demographic winter, attacks on Black families and various forms of violence. Even if Black people had written this, and even though a popular Black woman director is bringing the story to the screen with a beloved superstar, The Woman King does not represent true progress. This interracial love scene, like those in so many recent commercials, aren’t driven by market forces or marriage trends in Black communities. And it’s been repeatedly proven that we’re no longer in a period where we need a white token in our films so that white people will see them.

And while Davis isn’t the Black woman seen kissing the white guy in The Woman King trailer, some of her other screen work reflects aspects of this trope. In the hit television series, How to Get Away with Murder, all the white men screw her over, and she ultimately does the same to the one Black man who loves her. In the 2018 heist film WidowsDavis’ husband Liam Neeson cheats on her with a white woman and steals from her.

Quentin Tarantino challenged the mold in his way in his 2012 film Django UnchainedWhile maintaining his trademark exploitation and degradation with depictions of white men raping Black women, castrating Black men and being obsessed with the Black penis, he kept a strong Black loving couple central throughout the story.  

We’ve got to examine why Hollywood leans so heavily on redeeming white supremacist men through Black women. Even if the occasional Black woman – white man relationship did possibly exist during enslavement or colonization, these screen depictions aren’t based on anything real. The question is: why is the relationship between the white colonizing man and the Black warrior woman Nawi chosen for The Woman King trailer?

One notable exception is Black PantherWhile Ryan Coogler’s 2018 blockbuster did feature a white male character as a CIA agent, Everett K. Ross, he was constantly dismissed throughout the film and put in his place. He didn’t receive special privileges or present any danger to Wakanda. He almost died taking a bullet for Nakia, King T’Challa’s romantic interest. He doesn’t get even an appraising look or the slightest interest from the Dora Milaje or any other women – no love, no romance and no sex. It was a refreshing inversion of every power dynamic we’ve seen on a screen.

Those of who are marginalized and chronically underrepresented often accept the problematic depictions because we tell ourselves that it’s escapism, and “just how entertainment works.” But we don’t have the luxury of “escaping” these onscreen dynamics because they uphold and underscore white supremacy. They undermine Black romantic and sexual agency. And they rely on the symbolism of Black women’s hearts and bodies to redeem whiteness again and again.

At the end of the day, I’m excited to see The Woman King. Films like this can be a powerful outlet for the onslaught of racism, sexism, and misogyny that Black women face every day. The vision of us as brilliantly powerful warriors with agency can be therapeutic as well as entertaining to us. At the end of the day, films like this can give us an opportunity to view our lives in a different way. But we can’t ignore the price tag of white supremacy that Hollywood is committed to hiding in what would otherwise be truly empowering stories of full-fledged Black humanity and empowerment.

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