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The Woman King: When history becomes ‘herstory’

* This article contains spoilers of The Woman King

The word ‘intersectionality’ has become some what of a buzz word among feminists of colour. The term refers to how various aspects of a person’s identity overlap to shape their overall experience of the world around them. Being both black and a woman, for example, gives an individual a personalised understanding of both racism and misogyny. By putting black women at the forefront of its plot, Dana Stevens’ The Woman King (2022) captures the concept of intersectionality in feminism perfectly, teaching viewers the history - or rather, 'herstory' - of Dahomey Kingdom’s all-female Agojie army.

The Woman King poster | Source: IMDb

Women in leadership

In the film, Viola Davis plays the character of General Nanisca, leader of the Agojie army. Like many women in a position of authority, she faces the dilemma of having to command the respect of her peers and subordinates, whilst still retaining her humanity and compassion.

In society, women in leadership are often forced to subscribe to an unspoken dichotomy: to be feminine, or to be a leader. The misconception that femininity is mutually exclusive with power and authority is an age-old narrative, and one that is used to reinforce patriarchy and sexism. Much of the justification for why women are underrepresented in leadership positions is rooted in the idea that women are innately more emotional than men, therefore, are less able to make the rational, cut-throat decisions that are typically expected of leaders.

General Nanisca is a direct contradiction of this. She is assertive, yet understanding. Dominant, yet compassionate. When faced with the decision to either obey the orders of King Ghezo (played by John Boyega) and stay home to protect their kingdom, or rescue her long-lost daughter and peers from being sold into slavery, she chooses the latter. This kind of maternal care and sacrifice is exactly the kind of attribute that has been framed as a liability by patriarchy, even though it is actually the quality that makes Nanisca the powerful leader that she is.

Giving black women the representation we deserve

There are barely any Hollywood productions with a cast that is predominantly black and female. It goes without saying, but just seeing so many black women on-screen was truly a relief. Often, when black women are onscreen, they play supporting characters. They play the best friend, the girlfriend, or the wife - characters who exist merely to support the plot and enhance the characterisation of the lead characters. On the rare occasion where black women do play lead characters, is it common to find that the supporting characters closest to them are either non-black or male. For example, they’d have a white best friend or a black male partner. With a storyline set in -9th-century Benin, The Woman King, subverts this trend, serving viewers a feast of ‘black female magic’ on their screens.

What makes the film particularly unique, is the fact that it presents black women in a more powerful light. Unlike films like Precious (2009), For Coloured Girls (2010) and Hidden Figures (2016), The Woman King is less about the suffering and subjugation of black women, and focuses more on their tenacity and defiance. Whilst overcoming oppression is of course a significant part of the black female experience (especially in white-dominated societies), it’s not all there is to it, and The Woman King shows that.

The importance of telling African stories

As the US is the largest producer of popular culture in the world, the African American experience of blackness has become the primary representation of blackness in the mainstream media. Other experiences of blackness, such as the African, Caribbean and Afrolatinx experiences, have been eclipsed by the African American experience, and our stories remain largely untold.

The Woman King is the first film in Hollywood to narrate the story of Black African women. There are countless films set in North America and Europe which depict black people surviving as an ethnic minority in a racist society. What we don’t get to see, however, is black people in Africa who were living their lives in a continent which was becoming increasingly corrupted by the slave trade. The Woman King shows the kidnapping and subsequent selling of Africans by their own fellow Africans, and portrays the impact of this on rival African tribes. It is one of the only modern portrayals of the slave trade, not from the perspective of enslaved peoples in the US, but from the perspective of those who either sold them or fought to free them from captivity.

What does the future hold?

As a British-Nigerian woman, I hope that The Woman King is just the first of many films which replace whitewashed, male-dominated versions of history with herstories centred around black African women.

Needless to say, the film is most definitely a must-watch. If you haven’t managed to watch it yet, get to it!

Estelle is our Founder and Editor-in-Chief. She is a student studying MA International Journalism at City, University of London. She is pursuing a career in journalism, writing and activism, and is interested in society, politics, foreign languages and cultures. Her Instagram handle is @estelleuba.

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