Podcast: Reframing the brutal history behind The Woman King

Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu lead the way in The Woman King, an alternative take on the history of Dahomey
Ilze Kitshoff

The Wikipedia entry for the history behind The Woman King gave me pause.

I was ready to champion the movie in a TIFF preview, specifically because we get to see an icon like Viola Davis opposite fiery newcomer Thuso Mbedu play women warriors protecting the Kingdom of Dahomey. But then I discovered that the Kingdom of Dahomey was built on selling slaves to Europeans. And the Agoji, the women warriors who are the heroes in The Woman King, were, according to the history books, complicit in that brutal history.

Here’s the thing though, The Woman King, which is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, is actually pretty good. The movie even confronts this history while reframing it with a bit of speculation, imagination and, crucially, an alternative perspective. But don’t take my word on it.

Toronto-based dancer, choreographer and director Esie Mensah joined the NOW What podcast to unpack The Woman King and its alternative take on the history of Dahomey.

Listen to the whole conversation on the NOW What podcast at Apple PodcastsSpotify or the player below, or read the edited and condensed version further down.

NOW: The Kingdom of Dahomey was built on the slave trade. [The Agoji, according to history books, were responsible for raiding neighbouring African countries and villages and selling their captives on the transatlantic slave trade.] My first impression was, “Whoa, hold on. These are the heroes of this movie??!!” But of course, then we watched the movie.

Esie Mensah (EH): The thing that I personally really loved about this movie was that this is the first time we’ve seen a movie about slavery that also showcases the African perspective. [There’s something] where you are the hunted or you are the hunter. And if you don’t want to be the hunted, then you have to make sure that you are doing everything you can possible to be the hunter. What you are willing to do, to defend your own, was a huge thing.

The Africans that sold anyone of their own or neighbouring tribes, I don’t know that they knew what they were setting [their captives] up for. They’re not seeing the conditions that people are going to be going to, what life was going to be like once they had landed in the Americas. There’s so much of that story that they didn’t know. They’re just like, “either I’m going to be the hunted or the hunter. And I’m going to opt to be the hunter.” And obviously that comes with a price. Because then you’re gaining financial success from that. But I appreciated that Viola’s [character, was just like, “But at what cost? We can’t just be protecting our own. We have to protect everyone.”]

I didn’t even know that the movie was actually going to tackle that. Because you look at the trailers, it was like, “look at this post-Black Panther fierce female squadron. Let’s celebrate their strength.” I didn’t know the movie would actually tackle that [history]. I didn’t know the movie was actually going to be about Viola Davis’s character Nanisca, the leader of the Agoji, pushing her kingdom to end slavery and move into the palm oil business.

The history this movie presents is not the history that we see in the books. In the books, it’s the British that had to force the Kingdom of Dahomey to abandon the slave trade by imposing blockades in 1851. But then again, history books are written by white gaze, the colonizers.

EM: Exactly. It’s already misconstrued.

So it is fair for us to have this alternate take on what went down.

EM: We have to re-imagine what those conversations were like. The African-American perspective was like, “Yep, they sold us. They’re living a good life because they got a chance to stay on the continent. And I’m here. My ancestors were slaves for the last 400 years.” There’s a big divide between the African-Americans and the Africans. Thinking about the choice of being able to say, “okay, yes, we did what we needed to do, but we are also going to push the narrative that there were Africans that fought for that change.”.

This particular film, I feel opens up a massive conversation that has not happened among amongst those of the Afro-diaspora and those on the outside looking in. We’ve only seen slavery through a colonial lens. Was it really the British that ended the slave trade? Did they wake up one day like, “maybe I don’t want to sell Black people anymore, Maybe we should change this.” I don’t think that happened. As most things, as with any company, something affects your dollar. And you have to now adapt when it hits your pocket. You’re not adapting because of [morality]. You’re adopting because financially there is something that is either enticing more or you realize that this is not going to be a viable thing for the next hundred plus years.

Well, it’s interesting that the British decided to end the slave trade when they lost control of the [US].

EM: They’re like, “We can’t keep bringing more Black people here.”.

We often see when narrative comes from the perspective of someone who was part of the oppressor, but presenting one of the good ones. Just look at [the white saviour figure] in Hidden Figures. Look at Kevin Costner’s character. He was one of the good ones who helped bring down the [segragated] washroom sign, which never happened according to the true story.

We can apply that same criticism to The Women King. They are giving us these warriors who enslave their own people. “But here’s these exceptional characters that we’re going to make up so that [you] could root for them.”.

EM: I’m not going to look at this story and be like, “Oh, yes. They got everything right. What they presented to me was completely accurate.” Even in an interview that they had done for TIFF, they only mention that this film was shot in South Africa. There hasn’t been any rhetoric of the fact that Dahomey is in Benin. This is in West Africa.

We favour certain African countries over the other. The religion, the spirituality, the movement, some of it was reminiscent of [West Africa] but also some of it was reminiscent of the place where they shot, which was South Africa. This also happened in Black Panther. The taking of other cultures to help you formulate your own story has its pluses and minuses. That’s also an act of colonization, being able to kind of pick and choose a la carte what it is that you want to be able to say. But I think, overall with this particular story, it challenges.

What really got me into this movie is just the chemistry between this cast. In a way, Viola Davis’ character is on her own. She’s the stoic leader who has all this trauma that she’s processing and she’s going to trying to be the right role model for these younger characters. But then you get so much fun out of Lashana Lynch playing this veteran warrior with this great sense of humour, who’s affectionately hard on a character played by Thuso Mbedu, who I loved from The Underground Railroad. The latter a role, she does get to show her strength. But it is a lot of suffering in that movie. Here you see her kick ass, have fun and be romantic.

EM: It was beautiful to see melanated Black women in this film. The little girl in me is just screaming over and over and over again. There was this sisterhood. Even watching interviews and them being Gina, the director, was part of the training. When do you ever hear that? She herself went through that physical transformation that everybody went through.

For Viola, it almost felt like it was the sum up of her career, in terms of things that she’s had to push up against. LI was reading up on her thoughts on shadeism and what happened to her when she did How Do I Get Away With Murder? People  in our own community didn’t think that she was pretty enough for that role as a dark skinned woman. There was so much of a growth and transformation of her to be able to stand up. Seeing that through her character in this film was just phenomenal.

You mentioned Gina being among this cast, being among this girl group. You can feel that. Gina as a director, is getting these performances, creating this camaraderie with the cast.

I mentioned Lashana Lynch earlier, and I’m going to home in on her. Lashana Lynch was kind of being positioned as this great new Black female [star] because of her supporting role in Captain Marvel and her supporting role in the Bond movie where she’s the new 007. I feel those were performances of posturing.

This is a real deal, meaty performance. You know she connected with her character and she connected with her fellow cast mates. The real Lashana Lynch kind of jumped out in this movie to me. This is what happens when you get [a director] that actually respects her as a talent as opposed to some kind of symbolic, token sort of deal.

EM: “The first Black woman of bond.” Holding those titles is a consolation prize. It’s not a medal. It’s not a badge of honor.

And it’s true. She was so wonderful to watch. She’s getting so much screen time. And when she wasn’t there, I was like, “I miss her. I need the jokes, I need the laughter. I need how you care in this piece.” She came alive with that ability to come into a space where you don’t have to posture, you don’t have to put on, where you can actually just be.

You were cared for from the minute you came on to this until the minute you guys wrapped. And you can see it. When you’re cared for that much, it reflects in the performance. When you give people space to bring their brilliance and you support them in that journey, they can only be spectacular.

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