Opinion: What the calls to boycott ‘La dona rei’ are really saying

Editor’s note: Nsenga K. Burton, PhD (@Intellectual) is a teacher, film producer, journalist and cultural critic. She is co-director of the Film and Media Management Concentration at Emory University, founder of The Burton Wire (a news blog covering news from the African diaspora) and received the Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. The opinions expressed here are my own. Read more opinion on CNN.


Note: This opinion piece contains mild spoilers for “The Woman King.”

Imagine my excitement – as a black woman named after a controversial African queen – to see a Hollywood film about a fearless unit of warrior women committed to protecting the West African kingdom of Dahomey during more than 200 years.

Nsenga K. Burton

Inspired by true events, “The Woman King” was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and produced by Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis (who also stars) and veteran actress and producer Maria Bello. And the highly-anticipated film made $19 million last weekend during its domestic box office debut, so clearly I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm.

The film tells the story of the Agojie, the most powerful army of women in the history of the world, their unparalleled commitment to their country, to others and to their king Ghezo, played exceptionally by John Boyega.

But there are calls to boycott the film because, to its critics (even those not calling for a boycott), it downplays the role the Kingdom of Dahomey played in the Atlantic slave trade. In his eyes, this fictional film, inspired by real events, does not draw enough information about a horrible story – the kidnapping and sale of Africans by the kingdoms of Dahomey and Oyo – that is, in the narrative arc of the film, a subplot, while the main story focuses on a group of badass African women, who live, love and work together to ensure that their people remain free.

The period of Dahomey’s most intense involvement in the slave trade included the trafficking of West Africans in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, mainly taking captives who were then enslaved abroad by European traders. The real King Ghezo finally agreed to end Dahomey’s involvement in the slave trade in 1852, under pressure from the British government (which had abolished slavery in 1833).

However, the Atlantic slave trade is hardly overlooked in the film. At the beginning of the film, Davis’ character Nanisca warns the king to allow his people, and other Africans, to become involved in the business. He spends the entire film talking about how wrong it is to sell your own people and offers alternatives to the barbaric practice. The film’s climax involves the Agojie freeing Africans who were about to be transported to the New World.

Isn’t it interesting that some of those calling most strongly for the boycott are black men? Where were similar calls on films like “12 Years a Slave,” “Django Unchained” or “The Good Lord Bird”—films about the slave trade that took abundant creative license in their depiction of characters, stories and the institution of slavery itself?

There is inherent value in a film about a dynamic group of black warrior women that many had never heard of, from a West African kingdom that most couldn’t find on a map, who defy the notion of male supremacy The film’s controversies only amplify the need for more people to see it, and to talk about it.

Meanwhile, critics calling for a more realistic portrayal of the slave trade could direct their energies elsewhere: They could focus on the fact, for example, that America’s school systems are taking steps to erase the its reality and its legacy of curricula. Or that many Americans dismiss it as “no big deal” when discussions of slavery turn to reparations. Or that the slave trade has historically been misrepresented on television and in film for over 100 years: see film classics such as “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) or “Gone with the Wind” (1939 ) or the TV classics “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. (1987) and “Roots” (1977).

I suspect that much of the criticism and most of the efforts to suppress this film are really about the portrayal of powerful black warrior women fighting and winning battles in a Hollywood that is still overwhelmingly white and male. Not only in the film, but in the very fact of its creation, and the audience it has already achieved, black women are winning, and the trolls who oppose the film are losing.

As much as anything else, “The Woman King” is about the precarious journey of black women and the obstacles they face in their pursuit of freedom and self-determination in a world where misogyny and misogyny reign

“The Woman King” is an outstanding film in the tradition of such classics as “Spartacus” (1960), “Braveheart” (1995) and “The Gladiator” (2000). The difference is that black women are at the center of the action, both on screen and behind the camera. It’s a difference that makes the film all the more worth watching.

Hollywood has spent much of its existence repudiating the talent of black women. The effort of some to erase his work in “The Woman King” is unfortunate. But it shouldn’t work, and it won’t. Anyone who finds the film’s depiction of the slave trade problematic should watch it anyway, and then join a lively debate about what worked, what didn’t, and how it might be depicted with more precision

There is intellectual and cultural value, even – or perhaps especially – in conflict and contradictions.

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