There is a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill that asserts that history is written by the victors.
This idea has allowed American students to commonly teach that Christopher Columbus “found” America, despite the millions of people already living here when he arrived. Black Americans are allowed to be taught that their history begins with the beginning of slavery. This is what makes it so difficult for people to shed unconscious biases and allow new perspectives to color things they previously took as fact.
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King explores the 1823 conflict between the African kingdom of Dahomey, with its all-female force, the Agojie, and the prosperous, Western-influenced Oyo Empire. Despite its critical and commercial success — and despite relatively less reputable online sources offering information about the time period and location in which the film is set — a small fraction of people on social media have accused the film of historical revisionism.
“My problem is that they’re actually parroting the story wrong that they think we’re revising,” Prince-Bythewood said of the “fabricated conspiracies and conflicts” circulating online. “And there is a great irony in that, a great sadness. You’re literally talking about something you don’t really know the truth of, and it feels like you’re doing the job of the oppressor.”
The director, along with production designer Akin McKenzie, did a deep dive into researching Dahomey and the Agojie before reaching out to historical advisor Leonard Wantchekon, who is directly related to a member of the Agojie. She noted that much of the information written about the kingdom came from the perspective of European colonizers.
“As we began to dig deep into the research, we realized that the history of these women and Dahomey was written from the perspective of the oppressors,” she said. “We found Leonard through an article that appeared in the Washington Post [where he said] If a film were ever made, he would like to make sure that the humanity of these women is shown and not just these stereotypical “Black Amazons”. [narrative], that was Western terminology. What Leonard brought, which we should all want, is history properly told by those who lived it as opposed to those who had an absolute desire to dehumanize us and distort history.”
Wantchekon, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, was born in the Beninese town of Zagnanado, where Dahomey’s King Ghezo died, 40 km from the capital, Abomey. “The Agojie training camp was a mile from my hometown,” he said. “And Ghezo’s son, King Glele, actually had his palace 1.5 miles from where I was born.”
He has written several articles for leading academic journals, including The Slave Trade and the Origins of Missrust in Africa, which he co-authored with Nathan Nunn for the American Economic Review in 2011. He has also written a book about the Port of Ouidah in Dahomey and is currently compiling biographies of more than 50 members of the Agojie.
It is a misconception that Dahomey was nothing more than a state involved in the slave trade. It is a narrative built by Europeans to portray the state as barbaric.
— Leonard Wantchekon, Historical Advisor on The Woman King
“It’s a misconception that Dahomey was nothing more than a state involved in the slave trade,” Wantchekon said. “It’s a narrative built by Europeans to portray the state as barbaric. But at the same time [primary sources detail] how respectful and sometimes scared they were of Dahomey. For example, if you read the correspondence between King Glele and [Otto von] Bismarck, it was very respectful. But perhaps because it was such a highly respected kingdom they were not well liked by the Europeans who presented themselves as the saviors of Africa. But by the mid-19th century, tens of thousands of freed slaves were returning from Brazil. They had to believe in this place so they could come back.”
“Where Dahomey was at that time, the crossroads that Ghezo faced, the fight between Oyo and Dahomey, all of that is true and real and what the Agojie fought for,” Prince-Bythewood said. “It’s not a documentary, but there’s absolutely a tremendous amount of truth in it. When you look up [Dahomey and the Agojie] You will see that there is only one book on it, and it is a book that is offensive. I only remember what happened [following the release of] “Selma”, “Braveheart” and “300”. There’s a celebration and then there’s a small minority that yells about historical accuracy.”
It feels like a litmus test that no one can really pass, as deployed on places like Twitter.
– Racquel Gates on criticism of “historical accuracy” in films
“As a film scholar, it really upsets me when false concerns like this arise,” said Racquel Gates, associate professor of film and media studies at Columbia University. “Film is not a window into reality. In a way it can be a mirror. They’re translating a true story into something that needs to be cinematically readable, and it’s interesting that with so many other types of films, we accept that: Disney can’t do that literally Adapting “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” would be really terribly depressing films. Goodfellas doesn’t tell the whole life of Henry Hill, it has to end at one point because there is a story. It’s about translating the ideas, not translating the words literally. It feels like a litmus test that no one can really pass, the kind used on places like Twitter.”
“It is maybe [the first time] We have never seen Africa represented so positively at the [big] Screen at the highest level,” said Wantchekon. “No one will dispute that Dahomey was involved in the slave trade. However, according to recent data, it accounted for about 3.5% of trade, far less than Lagos, Ghana and Angola. So it’s important to put that in perspective.”
“In the middle of the 19th century there was a very strong resistance to the continuation of the slave trade [in Dahomey],” he added. “Europeans tend to write a lot about how the UK government tried to stop the trade, but not enough about the opposition and the movement out [within Africa]. If you take the Agojie for example, there were a lot of them [former] prisoners. So if they rose to positions of power, they would [obviously] Push away the government and the king [from participating in the slave trade]. It is known that before Ghezo, Adandozan, the king expressed resistance [as well].
“We’re talking about a specific time [in history], 1823. We are not talking about 1750 or 1870. Clearly the king and the whole country had one thing in mind, that was the Oyo Empire and how does one free oneself from economic dependency and tribulation? That was the focus. This film is not about the entire history of Dahomey, but about a specific time when all the stars were aligned against the continuation of the slave trade. And the data on slave exports during this period, the politics and the conflict all show that this happened.”
This is the first film to focus on black women in these positions of power… and it hasn’t escaped my notice that there will be those who would actually vilify this or try to take it down.
— Gina Prince-Bythewood, director of The Woman King
“I don’t think you should ever fabricate the truth,” Prince-Bythewood said. “What we’re showing is authenticity in who these women were and what society was like. We are dealing with things that were beautiful about the Kingdom and things that they needed to correct. It’s a bit difficult considering this is the first film to focus on black women in these positions of power and beauty and grandeur and royalty and it hasn’t escaped my notice that there will be those who would actually denigrate this or try to bring this down. ”
“What is the goal of the film?” Gates said. “Is it educable? Is it intended to represent the story or to capture themes and spirit of problems faced by the human condition? I’ve seen a lot of movies that deal with the civil rights movement and slavery where the filmmaker, the screenwriter, finds this one random white person who was kind of around and designs the whole movie around her as a hero and a protagonist.
“Well, is that historically correct? I guess the white guy was there. Are you translating the spirit of the civil rights movement? No, you are actually doing something incredibly offensive by centering whiteness in a story that is supposed to be about blackness and black liberation. So my question is, are you throwing historical inaccuracies out there as if supporting them. What do you think this movie does that you find objectionable?
“What are the stories and the way stories are told that we as viewers have been trained in and are comfortable with? And what are the things that feel foreign to us? I just think it’s very fitting that at a time when Hollywood is being dominated by superhero movies, suddenly there’s something that seems to bother people about having black women in those positions. … I think some people can’t even pinpoint what bothers them about it.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-09-28/woman-king-true-story-explained-revisionist-history-debunked ‘Woman King’ true story: Debunking ‘revisionist history’ claims