J. Pharoah Doss: ‘The Woman King’ and the real magic of movies

by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

A 1965 history book by historian Samuel Eliot Morison discussed the Supreme Court case concerning a revolt aboard the Amistad, a Spanish slave ship, led by an African named Cinqué.

After the Africans killed most of the Amistad’s crew, it was captured by a United States warship. The Africans were charged with mutiny and murder, but the local court didn’t convict the Africans on the grounds that the slave trade was illegal under American and Spanish law.

The Spanish owners of the Amistad appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Former U.S. President John Quincy Adams argued against the appeal, and the Supreme Court ruled that the Africans were freed and could return to Africa.

However, Morison concluded, “The ironic epilogue is that Cinqué, once home, set himself up as a slave trader.”

Let’s fast-forward to 1997 when Amistad—the movie—was made.

The film was harshly criticized for historical inaccuracies. Black critics called it a “White savior” movie because the hero of the film was John Quincy Adams and not Cinqué. Other Black critics complained that the movie omitted how the White missionaries worked zealously to rid the Africans of their names, language, customs, and religious beliefs.

Right-wing radio hosts claimed the movie covered up two historical facts. 1). The Africans were on the Amistad because other Africans sold them to the Spaniards. 2). After Cinqué returned to Africa, he became a slave trader.

The movie producers insisted there was no documented evidence that Cinqué was ever involved with slave trading when he returned to Africa. From 1997 to the present, Black historians have made efforts to clear Cinqué’s name from being associated with slave trading.

Wikipedia even states that contemporary Black historians admitted that some of the Africans associated with the Amistad probably did engage in the slave trade when they returned to Africa, but they don’t believe Cinqué was involved. They claim Cinqué became a prominent figure in Sierra Leone and helped Christianize the country. (Some may wonder what’s worse, slave trading or spreading the religion of White colonizers.) At this point, it’s hard to tell which has more revisionist history, the Amistad movie or the attempts to clear Cinqué’s name.

Let’s fast-forward to Hollywood’s latest epic, The Woman King. A film about a unit of women warriors who protected the ancient Kingdom of Dahomey from their African and European enemies.

Once again, critics threw a fit about the film’s historical inaccuracies.

The main complaint was that the Kingdom of Dahomey was a huge participant in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Dahomey’s warriors raided villages, captured other Africans, and sold them to the Europeans. One Black group went as far as to say the film glorifies an African Kingdom that brutalized their ancestors, and groups on the far right criticized the film for depicting Black women murdering White men.

Unlike Amistad, critics actually wanted moviegoers to boycott The Woman King.

When asked about the historical inaccuracies of the film, the producers of The Woman King said that most of the story is fictionalized. It’s history, but we have to take license. We have to entertain people.

That’s understandable, but the producers left out their motive.

In 2018 Marvel’s Black Panther became one of the highest grossing films of all time. This comic-book movie presented an advanced African Kingdom whose ruler was protected by an elite all female guard. As it turned out, this fictional female guard was inspired by the women warriors of ancient Dahomey. The success of the Black Panther movie also sparked an interest in stories about women warriors.

Therefore, the producers of The Woman King had no interest in historical accuracy. Their goal was to capitalize on the fascination with women warriors while it lasted.

For the record, all historical films are fictionalized, and whoever boycotts a film because of historical inaccuracies doesn’t understand the real magic of movies.

Louis B. Mayer of MGM Studios explained, “This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of movies, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”

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