When the musical film black is king was released in 2020, African audiences and some critics said it defamed and distorted the culture and history of the continent.
They described its Afrocentric portrayal of Africa as “Wakanda-esque”, a reference to the fictional East African country popularized by Black Panther2018’s seminal black superhero film.
The female king is a deeply sanitized version of the dark truth about slavery and 19th century Africa.
Directed and written by American singer Beyoncé, who was also its executive producer, black is king is described by Disney— on whose platform it can be streamed — as a project to showcase “the beauty of black tradition and excellence” and honor the “journeys of black families, through time.”
Yet, just like Black Panther, it is stuffed with mythical representations that manufacture the implausible and unnecessary impression that in pre-colonial Africa – a supposedly rich and elegant black utopia – African men and women were simply majestic kings and queens. Of course, despite the prodigious efforts of artificial Blackness, many loved Beyoncé’s 85-minute film, and some tagged critics it’s a “breath of fresh air” that “celebrates African places, styles and music”.
Fast forward to September 2022: Africa and the African Diaspora have an equally fascinating and controversial film production to admire in The female king.
Produced by Academy Award-winning Viola Davis and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, it’s about Agodjia female military regiment that protected the Kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) in the 1800s.
The 6,000-man regiment is said to have started as a palace guard around 1700, and its fighters were officially married to the king as third-rate wives – wives with whom he had no sexual relations. At the time, the Agodjie were the only female soldiers in the world to have fought in the wars.
But here’s the problem: they also often participated in slave raids.
Dahomey was rich and prospered by selling slaves to European traders. King Gezo, who reigned over the kingdom between 1818 and 1858, explicitly states that the slave trade was “the source and glory” of the wealth of his people.
However, to the detriment of African history, The female king hide Dahomey participation in the transatlantic slave trade between 1715 and 1850.
This suggests that Dahomey was, in fact, an anti-slavery kingdom, when it certainly was not. The film also portrays the Agodjie as freedom fighters, when they were just simple soldiers who captured and sold slaves.
It’s essentially a deeply sanitized take on the dark truth about slavery and 19th-century Africa, filled with a sweet, melodramatic nostalgia for an Afrocentric fantasy.
Julian Tennon, husband of Davis and co-producer of The female kinghas defended the film’s substantial flawsclaiming: “It’s history but we have to take a license. We have to entertain people.”
The Agodjie were the only female soldiers in the world to have fought in the wars. But here’s the thing: they also often participated in slave raids.
Throughout the history of the industry, as evidenced The birth of a nation and carried away by the wind—Hollywood directors and producers have largely refused to make films that accurately depict slavery.
Django Unchainedthe 2012 revisionist western written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, lacks nuance in its depiction of slavery. lincolnalso released that year, suggests black people did not fight to end slavery— the whites did. Meanwhile, the 2013 Oscar-winning actor 12 years of slavery has been the subject of criticism for not “representing black resistance to slavery”.
When Hollywood producers like Davis decide the facts about slavery are unnecessary, they risk losing their credibility.
Their work is a far cry from the dark and difficult times when the the truth about slavery mattered to African-American storytellers. From the 1830s to the 1890s, former slaves used their experiences to shed light and humanize the horrific reality of slavery, building support for abolition.
Think of Frederick Douglass’ 1845 book, Story of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Or the 1861 classic by Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the life of a slave. These accounts gave raw and untarnished expression to the brutal realities of slavery.
According to the National Humanities Center at the University of North Carolina, “Fugitive or freed or “ex” slave narrators had to give specific details of their experiences in bondage, highlighting their suffering under cruel masters and the strength of their will. to break free.”
Storytellers, essentially, had to be honest. Brutally honest.
Today, the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement demands that Hollywood writers, producers and executives, whether black, brown or white, pay attention to detail and avoid creating revisionist narratives that seek to moderate the crimes committed by Europeans and Africans during the transatlantic slave trade.
Africans sold other Africans into slavery. This extremely important detail cannot be circumvented or avoided. Nor, of course, should it be militarized to minimize or dismiss the guilt of European slave traders.
Despite his best efforts, Davis cannot offer redemption to Africans who captured and sold people by erasing Dahomey’s slave trade references in search of a false but heartwarming narrative that might appeal to a “universal” audience. “, including whites.
Of course, the history of Dahomey, and in particular of Agodjie, is exceptional and undeniably fascinating, but as black people, this should not diminish our common commitment to spreading the truth in our stories.
It is time to respect the fact that Africa has a rich, vibrant and flawed history.
Let’s not forget that many pre-colonial African states opposed the slave trade. Nzinga Mbemba (1446-1543), who ruled the Kingdom of Kongo, for example, wrote to the King of Portugal, João III, in 1526, to demand the end illegal depopulation of his kingdom. His successor, Garcia II, did the same, but without much success. Other states that resisted the slave trade include Futa Toro and Futa Jallon in West Africa.
The artistic convergence of African history and capitalism could serve as an ideal platform to create informative, action-packed and thought-provoking films and conversations about the continent, blackness and slavery.
However, The Woman King amounts to a wasted opportunity to creatively explore a critical period in African history. Davis’s tendency to rely on wild romanticism (instead of basic facts) does a great disservice to African societies decimated by slavery and memory of 12 million souls shipped overseas.
black is king, Black Pantherand The female king demonstrate an obsessive and relentless determination to escape reality and reinvent Africa’s past. It is time to respect the fact that Africa has a rich, vibrant and flawed history.
In 2020 Davis ironically asked: “With any movie, are people ready for the truth?”
Blacks are. Filmmakers who claim to speak for Africa should be too.