The Disney conglomerate’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid is expected to be released on May 26, 2023. Disney’s previous Little Mermaid was a 1989 animated feature film. It is based on a literary fairy tale by prolific and beloved, nineteenth-century Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. A statue of the Little Mermaid graces Copenhagen’s shore and is emblematic of that city.
Disney’s 1989 Little Mermaid was a “resplendent” film that ushered in the “great Disney animation Renaissance,” a period of “aesthetic and industrial growth.” The Little Mermaid “established a pattern” for excellence in animation that would restore a floundering Disney to its throne as a major aesthetic and economic force in American culture. The Little Mermaid holds the record for the most money made in the initial run of an animated film. Critics award it a 93% positive score at Rotten Tomatoes. At the Internet Movie Database, fans young and old, male and female, gush about seeing the film for the first time, and then introducing it to their own children. In short, the 1989 Little Mermaid matters a great deal to many people’s cultures, tastes, bank accounts, and hearts.
Disney posted a trailer for its new Little Mermaid on YouTube on September 9, 2022. In this live-action remake, Ariel is played by Halle Bailey, an African American singer. As night follows day, the media was flooded with criticism of alleged white supremacist response.
National Public Radio’s Eric Deggans rushed to accuse viewers of racism, as he had previously accused Tom Hanks movies. Deggans had more recently criticized Amazon’s Rings of Power for being “awfully white-centered.” Rings of Power is inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, which were, in turn, based on English, Celtic, German, Finnish, and Slavic folklore. Rings of Power does feature black actors, but not enough to satisfy Deggans. Criticizing Rings of Power and House of the Dragon, both of which are set in a fantasy version of medieval Europe, and both of which do feature non-white actors, Deggans says, “It is odd to see two shows in the modern age that are still so centered on whiteness. Both of them have characters at the center of the action with blond hair, blue eyes. Everybody’s got British or Scottish or European accents … The narratives are still pretty white-centered.” J.R.R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin’s books and film adaptations, and Disney cartoons, Deggans writes, were “created to elevate white culture in a way that should be interrogated and changed … many iconic science fiction, superhero and fantasy stories over the years have reflexively excluded non-white characters and cultures … Peter Jackson’s white-centered films reflected the obliviousness about race.” White characters appearance in fantasy fiction “is the very definition of white privilege.” Any discussion of the appropriateness of black actors in these works is “exasperating.” Such discussion “is not a debate we should still be having in 2022.” Only “racists” have “complained about Halle Bailey bringing her Black Girl Magic” to the Little Mermaid. In response to allegations of “white erasure,” Deggans is dismissive. Such complaints are “twisted.”
In fact CRT-inspired voices have called for the “abolition” and “dismantling” of “whiteness.” See also here, here, here, here, and literally thousands of other peer-reviewed articles, workplace trainings, and school curricula that demonize white skin.
On September 14, 2022, the New York Times claimed that little black girls are spontaneously exhibiting ecstasy because the new Walt Disney live-action Little Mermaid trailer features a black actress. The little girls’ parents are videorecording the girls’ beatific transformation when they first catch site of the black mermaid, and are posting these videos on the internet.
The premises underlying these claims: America is a racist country. Attractive images of black women are non-existent in mainstream pop culture. The Disney conglomerate is not-at-all commercially or politically driven. As part of its charity work, Disney decided to – miracle of miracles! – break the logjam keeping black women’s faces out of popular culture. Disney’s beneficent and courageous decision deigns poor, deprived black urchins their first and only experience of pleasure at pop culture.
I threw caution to the winds and posted in the New York Times comments section that everything here is false. The girls being exploited in race-baiting, politically-driven commercialism are tiny. They have been alive for less time than pop trends like chosen pronouns and Italian beef sandwiches have been a thing. Put a three-year-old in front of a computer screen and run some images past her and you might get any number of reactions, from screaming to drooling to sleep. The insistence that these girls have been fully versed in Critical Race Theory and are bringing that indoctrination to their glimpse of a black mermaid is implausible.
Children are supposed to be about the bright future, not the poisoned past. If they have been indoctrinated by the likes of Eric Deggans to shudder at the sight of white skin, and to regard black skin as the only skin that can encase a being like themselves, this is cause for despair, not joy. If indoctrination must take place for black three-year-olds, why not tell them about the American soldiers who, unique in world history, gave their lives to end slavery? Why not tell them about pop culture’s steadily increasing diversification of its heroines, a diversification that has been continuing apace at least since Lupe Velez, 1927, Anna May Wong, 1924, and Eartha Kitt and Dorothy Dandridge, 1950s?
“She looks like me!” black girls are supposed to shout, when they witness the humanoid fish, covered with turquoise scales where legs might be. When I was first exposed to media images of Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift, I never rejoiced, “She looks like me!” They don’t look anything like me, nor does any other celebrity. That’s why they are celebrities and I am not. I certainly never saw my image in Disney’s 1959 Princess Aurora, with her merengue of blonde hair and her frighteningly narrow waist. “How does she breathe? Is she missing bodily organs?” the thoughts that plagued my young mind. “She looks like me!” is something I never said while watching Cinderella sing her insipid, masochistic ditties. Big nose? Fat? Wicked stepsisters looked like me. We normal people have to live out our lives too tall, too flat-chested, too mega-boobed, crooked-toothed, fat-calved, squinting, pimpled, not arousing ecstasy in those who catch a glimpse of us for the first time.
“You are missing the point you racist pig!” the Woke politely explained. “There are no attractive black women in media!”
Really? Half a century ago, I had a girl crush on Diahann Carroll. Her career began in the 1950s, before I was born. She was gorgeous, dignified, intelligent, physically fit, and my role model. I thought she was like me, and I’d be like her when I grew up. See how that works? Audiences who have not been indoctrinated in racism can identify with a celebrity who does not share their melanin count. Rather, audiences can focus on qualities deeper than skin color. Audiences were able to do that fifty years ago, and they do it today. Witness the white men who choose to wear sports jerseys featuring the number of an athlete they admire, more often than not a black athlete.
Whitney Houston was an extravagantly beautiful, deeply loved, and talented Jersey Girl (again, like me! You from Jersey? I’m from Jersey!). Just one of many YouTube captures of Houston’s 1991 rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” has over forty million views, and several people show up every day, thirty-one years later, to testify, teary-eyed, that Houston’s is the best rendition of America’s national anthem, ever. Houston starred opposite A-list Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, a successful 1992 film – thirty years ago! The next year, Angela Bassett, even more beautiful than Whitney, if that were possible, starred in What’s Love Got to Do With It, about the equally beautiful Tina Turner, whose career stretches back to the 1950s.
Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, Pam Grier, Chaka Khan, Beverly Johnson, Phylicia Rashad, Naomi Campbell, Beyonce, Nichelle Nichols, Halle Berry: drop dead gorgeous black women have had an increasing presence in American pop culture for decades. As have more conventional-looking black women. Oprah, Lizzo, Michelle Obama, Whoopi Goldberg, are ubiquitous in American pop culture. Children’s programming, like Sesame Street and The Electric Company, have been featuring attractive black females since 1969. There have been black Barbie dolls since 1968, children’s novels with a black protagonist since 1945, and picture books featuring black characters since 1962. The Snowy Day won the Caldecott Medal. The New York Public Library named it a “Book of the Century,” and it is number one on that library system’s list of “Top Check Outs Of All Time.” It was my favorite picture book as a child. I used to turn its pages and feel about the book’s protagonist, who I never thought of as “black,” “He’s just like me; he likes playing in snow.”
“Oh, you racist. You are not getting it. The little girls are shocked because they’ve never seen a non-white Disney character before.”
Really? I’m supposed to believe that a four-year-old girl can differentiate, after watching a trailer that is one minute long, consisting mostly of shots of underwater life like sea turtles and kelp, between a trailer for a Disney movie and any number of other media products? If she can, she’s been coached.
There have been previous black princesses. Brandy was Cinderella, Whitney Houston was the Fairy Godmother, and Whoopi Goldberg was the queen a quarter of a century ago. Tiana, in The Princess and the Frog, was a black Disney princess in 2009. The film was hugely successful. One websites lists fifteen black female cartoon characters “you should be watching.” Another site features positive depictions of attractive black female animated characters going back to the 1970s. Disney gave audiences a Native American heroine in Pocahontas twenty-seven years ago. Mulan, a Chinese lead, appeared twenty-four years ago; she was revisited in a live-action Mulan in 2020. Moana, a Polynesian heroine, debuted in 2016.
A list of Disney animated feature films since The Princess and the Frog reveals that most have featured, as main characters, cars, bears, donkeys, lions, and animated toys. The insistence that Disney is cranking out princess movies yearly and completely ignoring non-white leads is simply false. Given that it is false, and given that cute and innocent toddlers are being roped into supporting this falsehood, one must ask what powerful agenda is driving this phenomenon.
There are activists invested in the narrative that America is a white supremacist hellscape and that black people are helpless and doomed. This false narrative supports everything from millions of dollars going to the grifters of BLM, to Critical Race Theory in schools, to huge amounts of taxpayer funds squandered in failed government attempts to “help” allegedly “helpless” black people. Something as superficially innocuous as “black toddler reacts to a black mermaid” reaction videos are manipulative support for this false narrative.
The Woke and Paleo-Woke (older leftists previously known as the Politically Correct) are not motivated by love of black people. Rather, they are motivated by hate for Western Civilization, and a desire to virtue signal. A Paleo-Woke Facebook friend responded to my mention of the new Mermaid. He immediately complained that Biblical characters are not depicted as black. He jumped, with no segue, from discussion of Disney cartoons to a slam on Christianity. Jesus should be black; Jesus’ Caucasian features are proof of Christianity’s hypocrisy. In response to my friend, I pointed out that the insistence that Jewish Jesus was actually a sub-Saharan African is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that inspired, inter alia, in 2019, a deadly terrorist attack on a Jewish grocery store in Jersey City, New Jersey. No matter; to my paleo-Woke friend, toddlers reacting to the Mermaid trailer are proof that Christianity is evil.
The comments under the Mermaid YouTube trailer do include protests. Many of the protests follow this pattern: “I love the part where Ariel says, ‘I am the one who knocks.'” “I am the one who knocks” is a famous line from Breaking Bad. In other words, posters say that they are deeply moved by an aspect of the trailer, and they then quote the trailer as including a line from a previous classic film. Films quoted include the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Titanic, Star Wars, The Shining, Jaws, and The Godfather. After stating that the quote from some other classic film had been spoken by Ariel, the poster would say that its inclusion gave them goosebumps, and proved to them that the new Mermaid is one of the best films ever made.
One poster attempted to explain these posts. At first, the poster said, Disney deleted any negative comments about the trailer. After that, posters “started to play along by saying they loved something that isn’t there.” These posts also “seem to be a reference to Lord of the Ring‘s ‘Evil cannot create anything new’ because Disney/Hollywood doesn’t do this because they care, but because they want easy money and praise while not creating anything new, because apparently people of color and women aren’t worth the risk, so they are making copies of already established franchises … while not putting up the work.”
After I posted about these YouTube protests, my Paleo-Woke friend immediately said, “Folks are complaining about fictional beings who have the ‘wrong’ skin color.”
I chided him. “Make T’Challa white.” T’Challa, aka Black Panther, is a beloved black fictional character. Of course no studio would produce a multimillion dollar production featuring a white Black Panther, because, if they did so, unsurvivable outrage would follow.
I mentioned that there had been previous black heroines, and that they were featured in very successful productions. Since The Princess and the Frog, there have been changes in American culture. If Disney had chosen a black Ariel before statues, even statues to abolitionists like Hans Christian Heg, Abraham Lincoln, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and black soldiers who fought for the Union were defaced and removed; before Northwestern University law professors had to open a meeting with a self-accusation, e.g., “My name is Emily Mullin. I am a racist and a gatekeeper of white supremacy;” before school children had to segregate by race and learn that because of their white skin they are evil; before cultural arbiters like Eric Deggans identified the presence of white skin as something destructive that needs to be “changed,” while black skin is “Magic,” then black Ariel would have received a more friendly reception.
The Woke have told us that white Ariel suffers from “white guilt” and “white fragility.” White Ariel cries “white tears.” White Ariel is a product of “white privilege.” Of course there are white supremacists, of course they are evil, and of course they will hate a black Ariel. But white supremacists have been marginalized, and rightly so. The folks who have a problem with Ariel’s white skin include tenured professors, prize-winning journalists, and preachers in the pulpit.
The Woman King, like the Mermaid trailer, is being used as a litmus test. Producer and star Viola Davis says that those who don’t buy tickets to see the film sabotage future efforts that feature black, female leads. The comments section under the above-linked article includes posters saying, “I don’t want to be Woke-scolded into seeing a movie,” “If the movie is good you don’t have to pressure people,” and, “I won’t see a movie if the producers or actors have a political message to push.”
The Woman King is an historical epic film. It was released in the U.S. on September 16, 2022. It stars Viola Davis and John Boyega. The rest of the cast is majority black, with one white man playing a minor role as a Portuguese slave ship captain. The Woman King is set in the West African, slave-trading kingdom of Dahomey, circa 1823. It focuses on the Agojie, an all-female combat troop. The film is directed by Gina Maria Prince-Bythewood, the adopted child of a white biological mother and a black father. The script is by Dana Stevens; the story was developed by Stevens and Maria Bello. Both are white. At Rotten Tomatoes, a day after its release, the film enjoyed a 94% rating from professional critics, and a 99% approval rating from amateur reviewers.
I’m a hardcore movie fan. My go-to favorites are Golden Age Hollywood films. The Production Code, inspired largely by devout Catholics, held sway between 1934 and 1968. The Code limited graphic sex and violence. Filmmakers, restrained from using gore or titillation to bring audiences in, had to, like Scheherazade, hone their pure storytelling to its most seductive power. The Production Code demanded that characters who committed major wrongs be punished by the film. That insistence on punishment gave us the unforgettable demise of criminal Cody Jarrett, shouting, “Made it ma! Top of the world!” as he bursts into flame.
Catholic circumspection combined with the Jewish Hollywood moguls’ desire to reach the widest audience possible. Golden Age Hollywood developed the “invisible style” that focused, above all, not on attention-getting director tricks, but on communicating a coherent narrative in a way that would be comprehensible to every viewer in every seat. This desire to please the crowd was exemplified by Sam Goldwyn’s famous quote about one of his films, “I don’t care if it doesn’t make a nickel. I just want every man, woman, and child in America to see it.”
Studios cultivated stars that communicated larger-than-life but still intimate archetypes that audience members could relate to: the fast-taking dame, the innocent, the rule-breaker, the mentor, the fish-out-of-water, the girl next door, the hooker with a heart of gold, the mother.
Moguls understood that movies were a visual medium, and they worked to make the visual as compelling as possible. Sets, often entirely created on backlots, were as artistically composed as a painting. The Yellow-Brick Road, Monument Valley, the vivid sunsets of Gone with the Wind, Busby Berkeley’s eye-popping dance routines, Dracula’s cape, The Bride of Frankenstein’s hair, rewarded viewers for making the effort of leaving home and paying for a theater seat. Even low-budget studios, like Warner’s, that couldn’t afford to build replicas of historical vistas, learned how to make fetching use of shadows against white walls. People criticize Golden Age films for their emphasis on beauty. “What woman goes to bed wearing false eyelashes?” Women in Golden Age films did. Composers enhanced every aspect of the film with unambiguous scores like the orchestral specter of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and the screel of madness in Vertigo.
Golden Age films might allude to historical events, but no one ever confused them with a history text. Watching The Searchers might make you want to pick up Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, but footnotes were one thing and a John Ford or Cecil B. DeMille flick was quite another. In Captain Blood Erroll Flynn was a nice guy pirate. In real life, pirates were pretty awful.
Moguls didn’t want to alienate potential audiences, so they kept their messages universal, rather than specific. Meet John Doe, Frank Capra’s 1941 warning against fascism, never uttered that F-word. Rather, its message was universal. “Be kind to your next-door neighbor, even if he is Sourpuss Smithers or Old Man Delaney or Grubel, the Hermit, who eats from garbage cans … a dozen families got together and helped Grubel.” As Hitler and Imperial Japan threatened the world, Capra packed an important message into basic images the masses could understand. Grubel, with his dark hair and prominent nose, looks like a Nazi propaganda’s idea of a Jew. Capra seduced audiences into loving Grubel. Meet John Doe was released seven months before Pearl Harbor, when most Americans still wanted to pretend that fascism was not their problem. Capra found a way to reach them.
When I see a film, no matter when or where it was made, that combines the narrative drive of a locomotive, invisible style involving a minimal number of self-referential tricks that take you out of the film and remind you that you are watching somebody’s creation, a greater emphasis on the full human being than gore and titillation, a score that blends seamlessly with onscreen action, and characters I care about, I dub such films “movie-movies.” They are movies that know how to be movies.
The Woman King is a movie-movie. Coherent, single-strand, narrative? Check. Archetypal characters the viewer recognizes and cares about, played by charismatic stars? Check. A PG-13 level of gore and titillation, while still referencing the inevitable sex and violence in a film about women warriors and the slave trade? Check. Gorgeous sets, costumes, performers? Check. Rousing, inspirational action? Check. Willing suspension of disbelief and immersion into the world of the film? Check. A soundtrack that brings it all home? Check. Allusions to big, historical and political issues without turning into a history lecture or a campaign speech telling me which party to vote for? Check. Upholding of universal values? Check, check, check. In short, the makers of The Woman King very consciously chose to make a crowd pleaser. They succeeded.
There is a fly in the ointment. The Woman King is historically inaccurate. Dahomey’s culture and economy were based on the slave trade. The Woman King depicts some of the Agojie as voicing opposition to slavery. In fact, only British military pressure ended slavery there. After I review the movie, below, I’ll address the question: Is it moral to enjoy a movie that tells an important historical lie?
Spoiler warning: the review below will reveal the ending of the film.
The Woman King wastes no time with exposition; it begins, in classic in medias res narrative style, with a battle. Woman warriors, lead by Viola Davis as General Nanisca, rise from the grass and attack an Oyo village where captives from Dahomey are held. Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya) is the leader of this village. Odukoya will serve as the film’s hissable villain from the beginning of the film to the end. With his thick chin-beard, big muscles, and perpetual scowl, he resembles LeBron James.
Combat is hand-to-hand. Machetes and ropes are used. Izogie (Lashana Lynch) is shown lowering her hand, tipped with sharp fingernails. Her hand is bloody when it is raised, but we don’t see those fingernails penetrate. Later in the film, Izogie explains that she uses her fingernails to gauge out eyes. The women warriors are victorious. They liberate their own captives and take some rival tribespeople captive in turn. This tribal conflict between the Dahomey and the Oyo is a constant throughout the film; in real life, tribal conflict has long been a bane in Africa.
Civilian Dahomey residents must lower their gaze as the returning victorious Agojie swagger past them. The Woman King’s recreation of Dahomey bears as much relation to the real Dahomey as the Egypt of The Ten Commandments does to real Egypt. In both cases, fantastical sets are a feast for the eyes. Onscreen Dahomey is spotlessly clean, with orderly mud-brick architecture, interior furnishings, and a below ground, candle-lit swimming pool filled with turquoise water. Residents wear pristine, fresh-pressed and starched costumes rich with colors not available until the invention of synthetic dyes, by British chemist Sir William Henry Perkin, in the mid-nineteenth century. King Ghezo’s (John Boyega) wives wear elaborate creations and facial cosmetics that, again, bear the stamp of twentieth-first century science and couture. This viewer greatly enjoyed beautiful onscreen Dahomey, and wasn’t overly concerned with the departure from what a real African kingdom would look like in 1823, or, indeed, in the late twentieth century, when I lived in an African country.
Parents inform their daughter Nawi that they have arranged a marriage for her. Thuso Mbedu, who is 31, but who looks in this film to be nine years old, plays Nawi. Nawi’s plump, fiftyish “husband” wastes no time. He hits petite Nawi hard in the face, establishing that he is boss. Nawi doesn’t want to marry this aged batterer. Nawi’s disgusted father drags his rebellious daughter to the palace compound and surrenders Nawi to the Agojie. Nawi will train alongside one of the Oyo captives who has been drafted into the ranks.
The details, above, telegraph to any hardcore movie fan exactly how the plot will play out. Nawi is the archetypal rebellious new recruit. To borrow the title of a recent blockbuster, Nawi will be this movie’s Maverick. Nanisca will be the hardened old-timer with a hidden heart of gold. Oba Ade will be the very bad guy who gets his comeuppance in the end, either at the hand of Nanisca or Nawi or both, even as the audience cheers. I liked this aspect of The Woman King. It is a by-the-numbers, old-fashioned crowd pleaser, that adds its own unique flourishes to a timeworn genre.
Dahomey’s ethic is very like that of the Spartan warriors in 300. Raw power is good. “We fight or we die,” Nanisca pronounces. Ode, (Adrienne Warren), an Oyo girl, willingly joins the Agojie, knowing that she may someday raid an Oyo village and kill its residents. “It is better to be the predator than the prey.” When a warrior dies in battle, her face is covered with a homespun cloth, and an idol of a deity is placed atop her face. A character is shown performing a Vodun libation ceremony for fallen sisters.
Viewers in online reviews are expressing special love for Lashana Lynch as Izogie, the trainer of new recruits. All I can say to these other viewers is, “Hands off Izogie. She is mine!” I liked Izogie so much I wish I had a friend like her.
Lynch is comparable to Lou Gossett, Jr, who won an Academy Award in 1983 for his role as a drill sergeant in An Officer and a Gentleman. Lynch’s chin is forever thrust out; she challenges the very air. Nawi collapses in tears. “I’ve had a hard life,” she whines. Izogie insists that the girl stop whining, get up, and soldier. “Tears mean nothing if you are a warrior.” Izogie is a human honey badger. Izogie is as capable of educational violence, and as implacably demanding, as an old-school Catholic nun. Her recruits are going to do it right, or they will learn to regret it, after which they will do it right!
The Woman King repeatedly preaches obedience to authority and self-discipline. Nawi, the maverick, breaks the rules; her superiors reprimand her harshly. “I watched soldiers die because they do not have discipline,” she is told. Even so, Nawi’s penchant for going her own way endears her to the audience. In a very difficult-to-watch scene, the recruits must run an obstacle course by scrambling through a barricade of branches armed with inches-long thorns. Young bodies are torn up. Nawi sees that Ode is faltering. Though her orders are to advance, never retreat, Nawi turns back and helps Ode. Mbedu is exquisitely beautiful and her Nawi character is adorably spunky, and the audience already loves her, but when she rescues Ode, not just her rival in training but also a member of an enemy tribe, the audience’s heart runneth over.
After training’s successful conclusion, and at various other points in the film, the soundtrack includes choral clapping, stamping, ululating, chanting, and drumming. It sounded like similar celebrations I witnessed when I lived in Africa.
A PG-13-rated flashback reveals just enough images for the viewer to conclude that Nanisca had previously been a captive, and had been gang-raped. Slowly but surely, the film reveals the kind of backstory that will have some audience members sobbing, and other audience members feeling manipulated. Oba Ade raped Nanisca. She escaped, gave birth, and asked her trusty sidekick, Amenza (Sheila Atim, very good) to dispose of the baby. Nawi has a scar on her shoulder. Nanisca wears a shark-toothed necklace with one broken shark tooth. She placed the tip of that tooth into the shoulder of the baby she surrendered. Nanisca takes her knife and digs into a scar on Nawi’s shoulder. Nanisca withdraws the shark tooth. It’s the kind of heart-tugging, gasp-inducing scene that renders The Woman King a movie-movie.
Portuguese slave traders arrive. Malik (Jordan Bolger) is the son of a Portuguese father and an enslaved woman from Dahomey. Malik needs to cool off, and he strips and dips into a jungle pool. Nawi observes him, her first naked man. Bolger is built like a Playgirl cover model. Why is this scene in the movie? Why do well-endowed young women often lose their clothing in movies geared toward a male viewership? You have your answer. Malik and Nawi like each other, but she is a warrior, and there is no physical intimacy.
There’s a climatic battle between the Agojie, the Oyo, and slave traders. Izogie is granted a death scene worthy of a warrior of her caliber. Nawi survives. Nanisca – surprise, surprise! – ends the wicked Oba Ade. There’s lots of audience cheering as Oba Ade bites the dust. At least he never says to Nawi, in the style of Darth Vader, “I am your father.”
The Woman King is catching a lot of flak because it is inaccurate. In fact Dahomey was a key player in the slave trade. Dahomey’s treatment of slaves included hideous torture, mutilation, and human sacrifice. Thousands of captives might be sacrificed annually. The Agojie participated in all this. Contrary to the film, the Agojie didn’t end the Atlantic Slave Trade. Western abolitionists did. Mauritania didn’t criminalize slavery till 2007.
Those insisting that we reject The Woman King apply a standard that they do not apply to other films. Gone with the Wind is said to be the most profitable film ever made. The American Film Institute lists it as the fourth best American film ever made. Gone with the Wind depicts slavery and the KKK inaccurately.
In 300, Spartans fighting invading Persians insist that they, the Spartans, represent Greek freedom against Persia’s slavery. Perhaps seventy or even eighty percent of the population of Sparta consisted of slaves. According to Plutarch, the Crypteia, a Spartan rite-of-passage, required a Spartan to murder a slave.
When making Schindler’s List, a groundbreaking film that initiated Hollywood’s coming to terms with the Holocaust, Steven Spielberg purposely chose a German Nazi Party member and spy as his protagonist. Spielberg knew a glamorous, adulterous, high-living Nazi hero, played by tall, handsome Liam Neeson, would bring in large audiences.
Gone with the Wind is not a scholarly article about American slavery. It’s a movie about the loss of innocence, a universal experience. 300 is not a history of ancient Sparta. It’s a celebration of warriors of every kind at any time who have thrown themselves against impossible odds and sacrificed their lives in a doomed stand for a transcendent ideal. It’s hard to understand today, when Holocaust films are standard fare, but Schindler’s List overturned a great deal of Hollywood cowardice around the topic. Spielberg knew he had to hit one out of the park so he chose the protagonist most likely to bring audiences in.
Those criticizing The Woman King for its inaccuracy are demanding that it be something it is not. It’s not a history book, it’s a movie. The Woman King never depicts the Agojie ending slavery. It merely depicts some characters expressing second thoughts about slavery. So, no, the film’s message is not what its critics claim it is. In making this claim, The Woman King’s critics are missing what the movie is saying, loud and clear, in movie language.
When Nawi collapses in tears, and tries to use her tears to manipulate Izogie, and Izogie, again, like an old-school Catholic nun orders Nawi to stand up and be the warrior she needs to be, I didn’t see an accurate history book, complete with footnotes, about Dahomey’s hideous role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Rather, I saw something I’ve never seen in movies before, and I’ve seen a lot of movies.
I loved watching all the female black faces on screen. Africa, no less than Europe, produces a wide variety of physiognomies. Some actresses looked to have some European background. Some were plump; some were thin. Some were older; some were younger. Thuso Mbedu is from South Africa; Sheila Atim is from Uganda; Adrienne Warren is from Virginia. All these diverse, beautiful black women were depicted laughing, and dancing, and learning, and mastering and celebrating each other. They were depicted as strong. They were depicted as overcoming their tears. They were not, as so many black women we’ve seen onscreen have been, helpless, doomed, or pathetic.
In the final standoff with the slave traders, some of whom were white, and some of whom were members of an enemy tribe, I did not see a battle of blacks against whites. I saw slavers, including the slavers who invaded and marketed my own Slavic ancestors, getting their due, at the hands of women, and I cheered. When Nanisca vanquished her rapist, I cheered. When women were shown being physically capable of overpowering men, which is, of course, implausible, I reacted similarly to how I reacted to equally implausible scenes in 300, when Spartans, small in number, won provisional victories over the vastly outnumbering Persians. I saw any victory, no matter how temporary, of the weak over the strong.
Art is open to multiple interpretations, and not everyone is going to see the same Woman King. In their appearance on The Breakfast Club podcast, the cast and crew sold it as a black movie, whereas I saw it as universal story for audiences of any race. At least one black viewer, Dr. T. Hasan Johnson, denounces The Woman King as “misandryist” – that is man-hating – and part of a plot by “white feminist women” to masculinize black women and castrate black men. That’s not the movie I saw. Black man Antonio Moore calls for a boycott because The Woman King “heroizes those people who created our oppression,” that is, African slavers. By that logic, I could never see Schindler’s List, because I am Polish and Oskar Schindler was a German Nazi.
For its championing of focused, disciplined, mastery, acquired, through self-sacrifice, at the hands of expert teachers, teachers who must be respected, conservatives can champion The Woman King. For its rejection of victimhood as a permanent identity, conservatives can champion The Woman King. For its insistence that black women excel, not as permanent victims, but as beautiful and self-disciplined, conservatives can champion The Woman King. For its depiction of a black mother willing to sacrifice all for her daughter, conservatives can champion The Woman King. Scholarship can do what movies can’t do, but movie-movies can do what scholarship can’t do. For me, The Woman King did what movie-movies can do. And I’m grateful.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.