I just saw The Woman King, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historical drama starring Viola Davis, that opened at the box office over the weekend. The New York Times reported that the film collected over $19 million in ticket salesand did better than analysts had expected.
I loved the film.
I loved it so much that I can’t wait to see it again!
I loved it even though Viola Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon, who produced the film via their production company JuVeeProductions, hired two white women to write the script.
I loved the film despite the historical inaccuracies about the Dahomey kingdom’s involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its conflicts with rivals. I loved it despite the false portrayal of the Dahomey as morally conscious protagonists who fought to end the selling of Africans to Europeans.
I loved The Woman King because I entered the theater knowing full well that I was not going to be watching an anthropological or historical documentary, but instead an illusion of the past. I understood that I was probably going to be entertained by an oversimplified spin on historical events visualized for me by creators whose main goal is to make money.
My love for this film isn’t the only takeaway. It reminded me that nothing for or about Black Americans is ever simple or one–dimensional. I learned long ago that you can’t always smooth over the contradictions in art, history, or pop culture.
And because of this, I’m reminded that sometimes multiple things can be true. This is what I love about storytelling. Especially historical fiction and fantasy.
The Woman King is a wonderful case study in media literacy.
As a media literate person, I never watch films about the past and expect that they are completely accurate. The Hollywood machine is notorious for using tricks, deception and creative license to bend the truth. Moments get exaggerated, villains can become heroes, romance gets thrown in even in the darkest times, and sometimes hope and inspiration leaves us titillated even when know full well that we’re still living with some nasty historical echoes and traumas.
And so, what I got on Saturday afternoon was an emotional fantasy that I lived in for a little over two hours in a theater packed with Black people, most of them women.
We laughed. We cheered. We held our breath. We winced. We cried. We talked back to the screen. That’s what good storytelling does. It gets into your blood and nervous system. It makes you feel something. It makes you imagine all that could be.
And sometimes to achieve this, telling a good story becomes more important than getting the facts straight.
The Woman King gave us so much: Slave trading, capture and captivity, greed, war, gruesome murders, ritualistic sacrifice, pain, misogyny, domestic violence, rape, trafficking of girls and women and African complicity with white supremacy. The film also gave us joy, intimacy, beauty, respect for the ancestors, spirituality, reverence for powerful women, loyalty, courage, fearlessness, sisterhood, keepers of secrets, reconciliation, redemption, resistance and the power of motherhood.
It is indeed, as Viola said, her magnum opus.
The controversy surrounding this film gives us an opportunity to address the ways we create, consume and respond to the thoughts, feelings and opinions conveyed in the digital realm. For the past couple of days I’ve been getting dragged for earlier concerns that I expressed about this film.
RELATED CONTENT: Not Even ‘The Woman King’ Warriors Can Escape The Colonizer’s Kiss
See, back in July when we all peeped The Woman King trailer, there was a tiny snippet that appeared to show one of the young Black warrior women kissing one of the colonizing white men. Many folks were thinking and talking about that snippet before it came to my attention. It made me feel a kind of way. So, in my column I stated in part:
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.
After seeing the film, I posted (on my page, not in an article or column), that I had been wrong and The Woman King did not succumb to the popular Hollywood trope addressed in my July column. I also reminded folks that I expressed my overall excitement about the film in that early column, and in no way discouraged anyone else from seeing it.
Yes, I had been concerned that the film was going to promote the usual white savior nonsense. I’m pleased to say that I was wrong: the man being kissed wasn’t white. He wasn’t a colonizer or an enslaver. He was a biracial man whose Dahomey mother had been captured and sold into slavery, a man who opposed slavery. He falls for the young Dahomey warrior womanwho has taken a vow of celibacy. And the kiss that was in the trailer did not end up in the final cut of the film.
I still question why that kissing scene was in the trailer but not the final cut of The Woman King. From a media literacy perspective, we recognize that every single image, sound and scene that we view on any screen is strategically planned and meticulously crafted to tell a specific story. To make us feel all the sensations and emotions that I and so many others felt as the story unfolded before us.
The trailers for major multi-million-dollar features are often used to test audience responses (especially in the era of social media) that can be used to inform the final cut based on how folks respond. It’s possible that Viola, Julius and Gina were aware of the social chatter around that scene and decided to axe it. Or they just decided that it wasn’t needed to move the story forward.
We may never know the reasons. But, to Gina’s credit, when someone made her aware of my July column, she responded directly on Twitter to address my concerns and clarify the issue.
Meanwhile, I am so tired of Black folks who complain when white folks tell our stories, but don’t take action to remedy that situation. We all know and agree that we need to tell and control our own stories. But some people limit their “activism” to being keyboard warriors focused on attacking others.
Some of these same folks also treat us Black scholars and storytellers like crap. They call us sellouts and elitists; and accuse us of being disconnected from the people while profiting off Black experiences.
One person on my page questioned whether we should support or praise movies written and produced primarily by non-Black creators: “It is arguably duplicitous for us to complain about the dominant controlling and gate keeping our history, but then spend our dollars backing such ventures.”
These same people seem to forget (or choose to ignore) the fact that nothing created by, for, or about Black Americans is ever one dimensional. We live in the complexities and contradictions of everything from history to fiction and every mashup in between.
All of this speaks to the intersections of social media, reading comprehension, and the presence or lack of media literacy—that is consuming all forms of media with a critical mind, careful analysis, and awareness of what’s behind it all.
It’s sad that some folks gain a sense of value and power by fighting and dragging others on social media. Rather than reading carefully, they cherry pick words or phrases and then launch all-out assaults. They don’t recognize the nuances and gray areas of reality. They consume media without understanding its functions, workings, or purpose. Rather than ask deeper questions or conduct their own research, they just pick a position and fire away.
Films like The Woman King and our responses to it act as a kind of sociological X-ray that reveals the inner workings of this still relatively new and incredibly powerful world of social media.
As we see every day on the socials, we can do good, or we can do harm.
We can engage in ways that help expand our perspectives, or we can double down on a rigid position designed to thwart any kind of growth or evolution.
We can love, appreciate, and support art, culture, and entertainment that might not represent all of our desires, social and political agendas, while still offering constructive critiques of everything we choose to consume.
We can recognize that just as in real life, the stories we choose to experience onscreen are complicated and multifaceted.
Most importantly, let’s stop letting those who refuse to create attack those who choose to put great stories into the world.
As the women warriors of Dahomey portrayed in The Woman King have been quoted as saying, “I have no promises to make … let my actions prove me.”
RELATED CONTENT: Viola Davis Addresses The Woman King Boycott On Social Media
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