Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Hollywood smash transforms slave traders into liberators

  • Instead of revisiting the African slave trade, ‘The Woman King’ turns history upside down just so athletic black women can beat up men

I love a sword-and-sandal epic as much as the next person. The gorier and grosser, the better. But the history buff in me often gets in the way of my pure enjoyment of gratuitous violence. Sure, a bit of historical falsification never hurts anyone, especially if it’s in the service of artistic licence to bring out a higher truth. Hey, it’s Hollywood!

Still there ought to be a limit to the fictionalisation of historical events such as turning totalitarian Spartans into freedom fighters. 300, anyone? Or portraying slave traders as liberators, as in the current blockbuster The Woman King. That’s just too much.

(By the way, just so you know because I have checked: the Dana Stevens who was among the first film critics to trash 300 when it first came out is not the same Dana Stevens who wrote the script for The Woman King. Otherwise, that would have been a really good talking point for me!)

In 300, you have buff white men blowing away the enemies of freedom. In The Woman King, you have buff black women blowing away slave traders. Apparently, the kingdom of Dahomey really had an all-female warrior class.

I can’t say I know much about Dahomey, which is modern-day Benin other than from the few pages devoted to it by Martin Meredith in his excellent The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence.

Commenting on the 1960s political landscape, Meredith wrote: “None of the coups in Dahomey, the Central African Republic and Upper Volta attracted much attention. All were desperately poor countries, dependent on French subsidies for survival.

“Dahomey seemed to be encumbered with every imaginable difficulty: it was crowded, insolvent, beset by tribal divisions, huge debts, mass unemployment, frequent strikes and unending struggles for power among corrupt politicians.”

All legacies of evil French colonialism, without a doubt! Before the French imperialists came, it was surely a land of freedom and prosperity, as in the movie. Well, not quite. It got wealthy and powerful mostly by trading slaves kidnapped from neighbouring tribes or states, and the Agojie female warriors fully took part in those raids. The slaves were traded for European arms, which helped Dahomey’s expansionism.

Interestingly, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Dahomey practised absolute monarchy which was unusual in Africa then.

Before she was anointed as the “woman king”, the fictional woman general Nanisca convinced her king to substitute the slave trade with palm oil production. At the end of the movie, the king even made a speech about “black power” worthy of Malcolm X.

But why would he make her his equal when she was already in command of an elite army that would surely pose a threat to his hold on power? There must be an African version of Sun Tze or Machiavelli.

According to the Britannica, the kingdom did make the economic switch but it was because the British Empire cracked down on the slave trade following the Congress of Vienna. Dahomey didn’t end the trade totally, though, only that it became much less lucrative.

It’s not surprising that the movie is having something of a backlash. Many black activists and academics in the United States are livid with the way the moviemakers played fast and loose with actual history.

I would have thought the history of Dahomey actually offered a much more nuanced view on the Atlantic slave trade. It wasn’t all the fault of evil and greedy European white men. African rulers and Islamic traders were fully complicit in the centuries-old trade. And it was the British Empire that first worked to end it, often costing the lives of soldiers and sailors who tried to enforce the ban.

But “woke” Hollywood being what it is today, it prefers the spectacle of heroic and athletic black women beating up men, whether black or white. And the fight scenes weren’t even all that bloody or interesting.