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Opinion Hollywood couldn’t make ‘The Woman King’ historically accurate

Viola Davis participates in a news conference during promotion for "The Woman King" in Rio de Janeiro on Monday. (Antonio Lacerda/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Whenever a historical epic comes out, a debate about what it gets right and wrong, and how much any of that matters, inevitably follows. “The Woman King,” Gina Prince-Bythewood’s hit action movie was no exception. But for once, this discussion is useful, if only because it reveals how filmmakers can tangle themselves up trying to balance the demands of audiences who want accuracy and narratives that flatter their political preconceptions.

“The Woman King” is about the Agojie, fierce African female warriors from the Dahomey kingdom, led by fearless General Nanisca (Viola Davis). They are at war with the Oyo, who fund their fight by enslaving other Africans and selling them to the Portuguese. In Prince-Bythewood’s version of this story, Dahomey, led by King Ghezo (John Boyega), participates in the slave trade as well. But just a little bit! And it’s just to procure the weapons needed to defend itself from the Oyo! And let’s just not pay too much attention to that because, look, Nanisca wants to end the evil practice and focus on the cultivation of palm oil.

There are other plotlines in “The Woman King,” but the question of slavery is, understandably, the one on which critics have fixated. The argument against the film: the Dahomey kingdom wasn’t made up of righteous abolitionists worried about the effects of colonial barbarism on their pure continent. No, they were slavers. Vicious slavers. The sort of slavers who went village to village and rounded up as many humans for enslavement as they could.

Folks on the right damned the film by saying it whitewashes Dahomey’s role in the slave trade. Those on the left damned it for being a film about Africa written by White women that commoditized “empowerment” at the expense of Black women’s bodies. Both converged on the trending hashtag #BoycottTheWomanKing.

For what it’s worth, people who actually saw the movie as opposed to just complaining about it on Twitter loved it: “The Woman King” garnered a rare A-plus from CinemaScore and earned a 95 percent positive rating from Comscore/Screen Engine’s Post Trak.

For critics, the question of historical accuracy should be consistent and simple: It doesn’t matter much, if at all, when considering the quality of a film. “Gladiator” is a good movie despite the suggestion that Commodus’s death ushers in the restoration of the Roman Republic. “300” is a good movie despite its inaccurate suggestion that the Spartans loved liberal democracy and strove to defend human freedom and flowering from Eastern hordes. Don’t get a historian started on “Braveheart” or “The Patriot”; they’ll never leave you in peace — and they’ll never relax enough to enjoy some great cinema.

A more interesting question is whether fetishizing accuracy — or throwing it off — flattens a movie’s drama.

In “The Woman King,” blurring Dahomey’s participation in the peculiar institution strips the picture of its intellectual heft and narrative complexity. The film could have been far more provocative with an “Are we the baddies?” moment. Writing in the New Yorker, Julian Lucas makes a convincing case that the decision not only cheapened the movie, but it also might have cost the picture an Oscar-caliber talent when Lupita Nyong’o walked away from the project after learning more about the behaviors of the kingdom her character hailed from.

Another question worth grappling with: Do the politics of the moment make it impossible to make an accurate movie about a kingdom like Dahomey? As it stands, “The Woman King” probably couldn’t be anything but a rousing action epic whose heroes served as the inspiration for a group of Marvel Cinematic Universe characters. It is hard to envision Hollywood making a film about the British Blockade of Africa, a decisive moment in the effort to end the transatlantic slave trade. Any such picture would be dismissed in pre-production as a “White savior” narrative or a defense of imperialism; it would be hounded for stripping agency from African abolitionists.

“The Woman King” either works as a film or it doesn’t, regardless of the real-life story of the Agojie. But it might have been a great movie rather than a good one if the politics of the moment let it tell a more complicated truth.

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