The Woman King is a film that is simply wrong – the Esquire review

Black Panther it is a film that will surpass all others in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of legacy. It meant a great deal to a vast global audience, the one almost always marginalized by cinematic storytelling, in a historical moment in which there was the return of a racial opposition that seemed to belong to the past. And it’s a Black Panther that we owe a second blaxploitation of which The Woman Kingdirected by Gina Prince-Bythewood, represents a qualitative leap, which embraces the dimension of the historical colossal in the land of Africa.

The story is set in 1823, in the territory roughly of present-day Benin, where there is war between the Kingdom of Dahomey and the more powerful Oyo empire. However, the young King of Dahomey, Ghezo (John Boyega), has on his side the dreaded Agojie, the Amazon warriors, an elite body trained in a manic way, led by the legendary General Nasisca (Viola Davis). However, the outcome of the war is uncertain, because now the Oyo, led by General Oba (Jimmy Odukoya), have even more help from Portuguese slavers such as Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin). Meanwhile, Nasisca tries to convince her king to renounce the trade.

The script edited by Prince-Bythewood and Dana Stevens, complicates the general picture of this war between African empires by crossing the war events with the life of the young Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who dreams of becoming an Amazon of Dahomey. Soon she will discover thanks also to the valiant Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim), that war is not an adventure and that the price of not becoming the wife-object of some arrogant landowner is higher than you think . The Woman King winks from the beginning for aesthetics, for themes and general atmosphere to the two Marvel adventures in Wakanda, it does so by predictably choosing an almost exclusively female and feminist point of view. Nasisca vibrates with the convinced interpretation of a Viola Davis who uses every ounce of her charisma to give us the image of a woman broken at every pitfall, valiant but also animated by remorse, fragility and guilt. The film has a first half that is sometimes interesting in general world building. However, he is criss-crossed by weaknesses that already lead him to crash in the middle of the 135 minutes. The most important reasons are two: it is a film totally lacking in coherence, but above all crossed by a moralism that is as excessive as it is misplaced.

the womanking

Ilze KitshoffSony Pictures

In recent days, both Viola Davis and director Prince-Bythewood are trying to respond to the criticisms and controversies grafted by the film’s deep historical falsehoods. The Kingdom of Dahomey was in fact the most important slave kingdom in the whole black continent, it is estimated that almost 20% of the Africans who ended up in chains to be enslaved by Westerners were sold by Dahomey. King Ghezo himself (a John Boyega strangely in part), did not cancel this trade at all, but on the contrary after defeating the Oyo he increased it, expanding his own territory. Paradoxically, the slave trade would have ended thanks to the British who decided to abolish it in the 1940s, and due to the fierce resistance of the free federation of Abeokuta, in Nigeria. The Agojie then, were known to torture and sacrifice prisoners according to the bloody rites of the Vudun religion, and were dedicated to absolute chastity, so much so that the mutilation of the genital organs was by no means a rarity. This is enough to frame the whole operation desired by Sony in a completely different way (with a budget limited to 50 million euros after all) as connected not to simple historical licenses, but to a total transfiguration of what that Kingdom was, of his true identity.

Overseas criticism is naturally incensing The Woman King a spur beaten, woe if it were not so, justifying everything according to the classic excuse of the “historical licence”, bringing up masterpieces such as Brave heart or THEthe Gladiator. But there is a big difference between taking historical licenses for narrative purposes and operating a sort of moral and reality inversion. Basically it is as if in a film about the Holocaust we describe the Hungarian Arrow Crosses or the Romanian Iron Guard as anti-Nazis or even worse as saviors of the Jews. Let’s not talk about battles that never existed, about the defeats of the slavers (Dahomey’s best friends) about an African continental sentiment that is pure American-centric speculation. We are beyond uchronia, we are on the side of rewriting the tragedy of slavery through a film which, as if that weren’t enough, has very little to offer. Violence, an aspect that is anything but secondary in theory in a film of this kind, is softened, anesthetized, made playful choreography like the dances with which The Woman King seeks a feminist epic obsessively. The result is what we have already seen many times in recent years: we have no character comparable to Lieutenant Ripley, Sarah Connor or Lorraine Broughton, the desire to be a multi-level structured narrative here gives way to aesthetics for its own sake.

the womanking

Sony Pictures

The Woman King it is stuffed with a rhetoric that crushes the diegetic process, strips it of all meaning. John Boyega’s King Ghezo himself, a chauvinistic and manipulative character, is actually the protagonist of an epilogue (and it is absurd given the declared aims of the operation) which is an ode to mansplaining. We are delighted by eunuchs portrayed as gays were portrayed in 80s comedies and by Jordan Bolger’s Malik, a sort of toy boy armed with a crossfit physique and zero depth. But meanwhile, The Woman King it collects a lot and this is enough to make everyone happy, American critics and all those who ask for diversification and inclusiveness without caring about the final result, about what the industry sacrifices on the plate of purification that will change everything so as not to change anything. The reality is that this film is the perfect demonstration of how we don’t talk about history: superficially and devoid of altruism. Evidently what over the years filmmakers of the caliber of Spielberg, Scott or Bigelow, what films like Elizabeth and Beasts of No Nation we were taught that nothing counts anymore, not when it comes to riding a trend for an audience that should never be trained but exploited.

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About David Martin

David Martin is the lead editor for Spark Chronicles. David has been working as a freelance journalist.

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