How a film about Dahomey Women Warriors stands to be a game changer — The Woman King (2022).
News shapes our views of the world; Cinema does too, but also in a cultural shock way. Jaws left beaches deserted; Super Sized Me shifted eating habits; Lawrence of Arabia mythologised British Intelligence Officer, Thomas Edward Lawrence.
The Woman King (2022) is set to be a game changing movie that will have a global historical and commercial impact in many ways, not least storytelling.
That’s not merely hyperbole because for the first time in Gen Z’s time a historical movie, with Black and brown people at then helm is getting the Hollywood treatment. The director is Gina Prince-Bythewood behind Love & Basketball (2000), Disappearing Acts (2000), The Secret Life of Bees (2008), Beyond the Lights (2014), and The Old Guard (2020).
Yes there was Black Panther that produced more than a $1billion for the studio, but this is different. The reason is it’s based on a true story and possesses an historical DNA which for centuries, particularly post 17th century, has been erased or maligned. The film is based on an all-female regiment which existed until the early 20th Century.
The evidence ( was in not always the case) now is there’s an audience that literally buys into revised version of events; helped by images (e.g. Instagram) and films that emphasise their agency and outlook. It’s a globally young audience and in burgeoning regions and metropolitan areas — even as combined long tails — their purchasing power is recognised.
It wasn’t long ago that studios claimed, as relayed in an interview by Denzel Washington, that they lost sales abroad if a film featured a Black person in the lead or on the poster. Shamefully, Boyega’s Fin character was minimised in the poser in China. Read: Hollywood’s irrational allergy to ‘black’ films by Roland Martin, CNN Contributor.
Historical Black heroic characters from Africa haven’t been given the Hollywood platform. You could trace a maligned storytelling strand that placed Westerners as the lead characters to sate audiences’ needs in films like Tarzan, Zulu — take your pick really.
The emphasis in this post is about historical based films today, because there have been films from Africa that have wowed audiences e.g The Wedding Party (2016).
Historical narratives that have dominated cinema have traversed from stories in books such as King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild and Stamped From the Beginning by American historian Ibram X. Kendi.
In these books we learn how warped narratives from Africa were shaped. Particularly, from the 17th Century. Travel writers such as John Rowlands AKA Henry Stanley Morton, Richard Hakluyt etc. constructed racists myths for their audiences in which the Europeans were the civilisers. Africans had no culture. It was a dark place, e.g. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Britain’s own PM Boris Johnson said of Africa “the problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more’”.
Based on a true events of the Dahomey women warriors, The Woman King (2022) opens an important window, supported by a digital generation to bypass old tropes. As I write this I’m thinking of the many others cultures e.g. Ashantis, Fantis (Ghana), ManiKongo (Kongo), Dogons in Mali etc with rich histories who fended off Westerners.
As a note of caution, and this is speculative, because of limited knowledge of the film, I imagine a vigorous debate in academia and some press will commence after The Woman King (2022) about inaccuracies and aspects of the Dahomey which either might either be minimised, or absent. That includes insights into their religious ceremonies and their own involvement in the slave trade.
This exchange of knowledge can only be beneficial in context and the comparative numbers of participants in the trade. Be mindful too that with “based on true story” genre films they’re not documentaries and hence their expositions can be narrow and focus on singular events.
The title itself, an interesting semantic pairing, draws reflection. In the Ashanti region of Ghana, there was actually a Warrior Queen Mother who fought the British. Her name was Yaa Asantewaa. Her story deserves the Hollywood blockbuster.
If The Woman King (2022) is to make a cultural impact by creating a window for historical African stories, the question of others films emerging to sustain this, is worth asking. From Cinema to Documentary, here the work of Channel 4 News’ in the Black to Front season where they investigate British looting of Benin Bronze and films by Historian David Olusoga are part of the Tent pole. Similarly, if If you’re a teacher of Black history this film is about to offer you the tesseract for your students.
Story leads that likely draw box office receipts is the window, because the signs are audiences are more than ready.
The Woman King (2022) stars Viola Davis, Nanisca, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Jimmy Odukoya, Santo Ferreira, John Boyega, King Ghezo, Jordan Bolger, Makgotso M, Lashana Lynch, Jayme Lawson, Thuso Mbedu, Nawi, Sheila Atim, Amenza, Adrienne Warren, Masali Baduza, Ode, Iniya, Fumbe.
It’ directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
About me: I’m a Ghanaian-Brit who grew up in Ghana, attending a school set up by the Ashanti King Nana Prempeh. I’m a Cinema Journalist which formed part of my PhD. It merges journalism with cinema and locates an emerging breed of journalist storytellers who’ve been recognised globally and have shaped global narratives. I’m recognised as one of the leading UK videojournalists in practice and theory — a recipient international awards. More here
I’m currently researching The Kings Men, a film in which the King of the Ashanti people Nana Prempeh people created a school which has had a huge legacy on Ghana and globally. Yaa Asantewaa has a direct connection to the school. (see here)