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The Woman King is entertaining, but don’t depend on Hollywood for history lessons

Even in fine films such as The Woman King and Michael Collins, historical fact is usually a poor second to storytelling and entertainment

Viola Davis (front centre) in The Woman King. Photo by Ilze Kitshoff© Ilze Kitshoff

Mel Gibson in Braveheart

Alan Rickman (left) as Éamon de Valera in Michael Collins, with Liam Neeson in the title role (second right)

Paul WhitingtonIndependent.ie

There are lots of reasons to like The Woman King, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s thrilling new action drama, which was released here yesterday. It’s the brainchild of actor and producer Maria Bello, who developed a passionate interest in the Agojie, a female warrior caste in the west African kingdom of Dahomey, and became convinced their story would make a great Hollywood epic.

It was Bello who persuaded Viola Davis to star in the project, and while Hollywood was initially reluctant to back a big budget film with an all-black and largely female cast, the success of Marvel’s Black Panther persuaded them otherwise. Shot in South Africa late last year, The Woman King has performed better than expected at the US box office, and is undeniably entertaining.

Set in the heartlands of what is now Benin, the film stars Davis as General Nanisca, the fearsome leader of the Agojie, who fight on behalf of their king, Ghezo (John Boyega) for a kingdom under constant siege by its more powerful neighbour, the Oyo Empire. Slavery is in full swing, and the Oyo in particular have enthusiastically supplied Portuguese and French slavers with captured enemies.

King Ghezo too has traded in slaves, but Nanisca does not approve. Having once been captured herself, she knows the horrors enslavement entails, and works skilfully behind the scenes to persuade her king to renounce the slave trade and turn instead to agriculture. In The Woman King, the Agojie are a spartan warrior caste pledged to celibacy and the selfless service of their king. Led by Nanisca, they are incorruptible, and eventually set about the slave port of Ouidah, torching it.

The idea of a slavery epic being told from an African point of view is not new — Steven Spielberg did it in Amistad. But what’s different about The Woman Kingis that it gives us a fascinating glimpse at the kind of sophisticated and cultured societies that existed in west Africa — and right across Africa — at the time they were invaded and colonised by Europeans.

Ghezo, for example, lives in Byzantine splendour at the heart of a complex court, flanked by many wives and advisers, parlaying with curious Europeans, engaging in diplomacy with a certain regal disdain. When one of his guests speaks to him in Portuguese, which he understands, Ghezo quietly says: “In my court, speak my language.”

The Woman King, then, dispels lots of myths about what African culture was like at the time of colonisation, but does it also create some? The answer is vexed, and raises questions about how closely dramas inspired by history should cling to accepted truths.

In The Woman King, the Dahomey people are reluctant slavers, their king easily dissuaded from exploiting his fellow Africans. In real life, Ghezo tightly controlled the slave port of Ouidah, from which the export of slaves greatly increased after his defeat of the Oyo; he fought bitterly to preserve the trade from interference by the British, formerly his best customers.

The Agojie might not have been the righteous warriors portrayed in the film either, and it makes sense that they would have to have been at least as cruel and ruthless as their male counterparts to preserve their honoured position. They were feared and hated by rival tribes.

The conflict with the Oyo depicted in the film may not have been particularly honourable, and a more noble war to concentrate on could have been the Agojie’s struggle with French colonialists at the end of the 19th century. But that was one battle the women lost, and would have made for a more sombre movie.

And that’s the dilemma film-makers face — truth versus entertainment.The Woman King is entertaining, and is not the first fine film to get away with stretching historical reality just a little.

Alan Rickman (left) as Éamon de Valera in Michael Collins, with Liam Neeson in the title role (second right)

Take Braveheart, for instance, a film with which The Woman King has been compared. As a piece of entertainment, Mel Gibson’s 1995 movie is beyond reproach, and has a special place in Irish hearts as much of it was filmed here using local actors and extras. But to describe it as historically inaccurate is an understatement.

William Wallace was not some face-painting highland farmer, but a well-educated Scottish nobleman who probably spoke French and certainly never wore a kilt — nor, in the era in which the film is set, did anyone else in Scotland. Far from being an egalitarian man of the people, he was a product of his time and class, who was cavalier in his attitude to his army and ruthlessly hanged deserters.

Sophie Marceau’s character Princess Isabella, with whom Wallace fathers a child in the film, was nine years old at the time of his execution. The Scots didn’t call Wallace Braveheart at all — that was the name they gave Robert the Bruce. And the famous Battle of Stirling Bridge was filmed without a bridge.

Not to pick on Gibson, but the 2000 drama The Patriot, in which he stars, also plays fast and loose with historical reality. Another heroic epic, it starred Gibson as Captain Benjamin Martin, a South Carolina farmer who takes up arms against the British oppressor during the Revolutionary War.

Viewers were left in no doubt as to who to cheer for, as dastardly British forces led by the evil Colonel Tavington (Jason Issacs) burn women and children in a church and shoot one kid in the back. Tavington was based on a real historical figure called Tarleton who, while demonised for largely political reasons in rebel pamphlets of the time, was not at all the monster Issacs played.

Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, was also based on a real person, Francis ‘the Swamp Fox’ Marion, and there’s plenty of historical evidence to attest to his unpleasantness, from raping slaves to hunting Native Americans for sport. Foisting simplistic good-versus-evil scenarios on to complex historical situations can involve some shameful shortcuts, it seems.

The British, as we know, were no saints, but were always keen on portraying themselves as such. In the 1964 film Zulu, which was more historically accurate than usual in epics of this kind, certain liberties were nonetheless taken. It starred Stanley Baker and a young Michael Caine, and dramatised the events at Rorke’s Drift in 1879, when 150 entrenched British soldiers held off an attacking force of more than 4,000 Zulus.

Mel Gibson in Braveheart

The film portrayed the Zulus as brave warriors for the most part. But the decisive confrontation at the end of the film never took place, and Zulus and Britons did not sing a battle salute to each other, either. Veterans of the battle afterwards accused the British of going around shooting wounded Zulus. And at no point was it suggested that British imperialism might have been at the root of all this slaughter.

The Black and Tans, it is generally agreed, were a bad bunch of fellows, and deserve everything that’s coming to them in films like Michael Collins. Twenty-seven years after its release, Neil Jordan’s epic stands as one of Irish cinema’s great achievements, but it did have a certain bias when it came to the politics of the Anglo-Irish War. The late Alan Rickman employed his usual skill in portraying Éamon de Valera as an oily snake in the grass who resents Mick Collins’ charisma and will be largely to blame for the coming Civil War.

This view is simplistic, and strongly contested, and there is no doubt that Neil Jordan used poetic licence in Harry Boland’s death scene. Collins’ old friend did not die at the Four Courts as depicted in the film, but during a skirmish in Skerries, and his last words were probably not: “Did they get Mick Collins yet?”

Virtually every Roman-era movie you’ve ever seen should be taken with many grains of salt. The period’s distance in time inevitably gives film-makers great scope for poetic licence, but should not entitle them to just make stuff up. Many of the difficulties have stemmed from Hollywood’s desire to interpose Christianity on the politics of early imperial Rome.

In the century or so after Jesus’s death, Christianity must have seemed to contemporary Romans an obscure and morbid death cult. Yet in everything from The Robe (1954) to Ben-Hur (1959), perfectly rational Romans stare off into space and have instant conversions when confronted with the divine verities of the Christ.

There is no Jesus in Gladiator(2000), which is odd, considering the Christians would have become quite an irksome presence within the empire by 180 AD. It’s a very enjoyable film, but does play fast and loose with the truth in other ways. In the film, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, played by Richard Harris, is murdered by his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). In fact, he probably died of smallpox.

Nor was Commodus the twitchy sociopath depicted by Phoenix. Though he later succumbed to a cult of personality, he was less bellicose than his philosopher father, and negotiated peace treaties with various enemies. Though he did sometimes appear in show fights at the Colosseum, he was not killed there, as in Gladiator. In fact, he died in his bathtub, strangled by his gay lover. Film-makers should remember that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

But in the end, you could argue, films are entertainment, aren’t they? Does the odd historical embellishment really matter? Not if you read books, and are able to spot the porkies.

‘The Woman King’ is in cinemas now


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