By Aswad Walker
I’ll keep this as brief as possible. And before I get off into it, for full transparency, I’m that African American Studies lecturer that says boycotting The Woman King, a movie that tells the story of the Agojie, the epic female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey from the 17th to the 18th century, makes no sense.
And I’m not the only one. But, I’ll get into that later.
Surely, if you’re Black, you’ve heard the criticisms of the Viola Davis-led movie that ruled the box office last week, taking in $19 million and exceeding everyone’s expectations. “It ignored Dahomey’s role in the Atlantic Slave Trade.” “It whitewashes history and glorifies enslavers.” One critic/podcaster, Antonio Moore, called The Woman King “the most offensive film to Black Americans in 40-50 years.” Damn, bruh. Tell us how you really feel.
I, however, have a different take. I’ve told everyone with whom I’ve come in contact that, from my vantage point, The Woman King is a “love letter to our ancestors and to Black women of all generations.” Especially this current generation, i.e. Black women living and breathing and doing their thing today, like only Black women can.
This may seem like a strange position for someone who has taught in the University of Houston’s African American Studies Program (now a department) for 18 years. Not to mention the Pan-African history classes I’ve taught for much longer at my church/movement, the Shrines of the Black Madonna.
For many years now, I’ve criticized individuals and organizations that have bombarded our people with “epistemic violence,” the act (crime) of removing our contributions to global history from classrooms and/or stealing our contributions to human civilization and claiming them as their own. I’ve been a stickler for telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about our story in this Babylon, and our longer and greater story before we arrived on these shores.
So, why then, am I not joining the chorus of those who claim The Woman King is not true to history, and that it ignores the facts of the people/nation centered in this film?
For several reasons; not the least of which is the fact that we Blackfolk watch movies and TV shows produced, written, directed, and staring “erbody” else and they mama, works of art that even with a cursory glance could be declared problematic for Black people and our place in history and current reality. Yet, we don’t bat an eye. We give all our money and time and energy and support to so much art that one could argue is deserving of our boycott, yet we say little or nothing except “When does the movie/TV show start?”
But here are my reasons for not only refusing to boycott The Woman King but for encouraging all of us to go check it out, as I will be doing again and again.
THE POWER OF ART
As Viola Davis’ husband and co-producer of the movie, Julius Tennon, reminds us, the movie is “edu-tainment” meant to entertain and not a documentary. And before you go hatin’ on edu-tainment or historical fiction, think about this. Oftentimes, art has the power to teach people what scholarly books and university lectures cannot.
In so many cases, art touches people at their core, at their spirit, beyond the rational mind, and moves us in ways straight facts cannot. Hence, art, including fictionalized history, many times inspires folk to do their own research into the real histories covered. And they do so with a fire in their bones and spirit that only moving works of art can spark.
Think about the number of people—scholars, activists, and others—who had been trying to get Black people to connect with their/our African roots and ditch those Eurocentric standards of beauty so we could fully embrace our own full-lipped, think-thighed, kinky-haired and dark-skinned selves. Think about the decades, the centuries individuals and movements tried to get us to see beauty, to see the God in ourselves when we looked in the mirror.
In 1828, David Walker wrote his classic book David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and very expressly, to those of the United States of America (known by most simply as David Walker’s Appeal). In that book, the former abolitionist who fought to end the system of US slavery by staying within the confines of the law, changed positions and used his book to lay out four reasons why Blackfolk needed to fight for their freedom by any means necessary long before Malcolm X uttered those words.
During one of Walker’s four arguments, he goes on a rant about the fact that it was Blackfolk who built the pyramids in ancient Egypt and that the great military general Hannibal was Black like those enslaved in America. And Walker goes in on the miseducation of both Black and white people to our true history. And in so doing, Walker was trying to get his people, our people, to recognize our own greatness and beauty and power.
The crazy and sad part of that story is, there were others still trying to wake us up to our own worth and value over 130 years later, but with the same meager-at-best results. Then brotherman James Brown gave us eight words that did more to get us to embrace our own beautiful Black selves than hundreds of years of fact-heavy books, speeches, and lectures, when he sang, “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.”
Don’t tell me art can’t have an impact!
And that’s just one example. I could talk about how Toni Morrison literally taught history through her tales of fiction. One of my favorites was her telling of “The Seven Days” in her book Song of Solomon. That fictional account of “The Seven Days” (look’em up) taught readers about the real-life history of Black resistance to oppression that started from our first encounter with colonizers, and it never stopped. Not for one damn minute.
Or Walter Mosley, my favorite fiction writer, whose works are part history lessons, part contemporary social commentary, wrapped in powerful, made-up tales of art. I dare you to read his Easy Rawlins mysteries and not learn something about our story, or be inspired to do some serious research into those nuggets he shares (FYI, one of his most powerful works, ironically, is about the near future, titled Futureland. It too offers a laundry list of history lessons and contemporary issues we’d do well to pay attention to and address).
And then there are the artists who had me running to read more about the folk they mentioned in their lyrics. I’m talking about the greatest hip-hop group ever, Public Enemy, fronted by the Hard Rhymer himself, Chuck D.
And I’ve seen the power of art reach and teach students when straight lectures didn’t do the trick, especially since we all learn in different ways. I have, for a long time, incorporated works of fiction in my African American Studies courses and included in my lectures, discussions, and film clips of movies, TV shows, or excerpts from poems like Claude McKay’s Harlem Renaissance-era work If We Must Die. And I’d see the light bulbs turning on in those students who were in a fog when only given lectures and history books. I’ve even included several of my own such works seeking to achieve this end, including The 100th Monkey: Three Tales of Spiritual Revolution and Stand Your Ground.
The Woman King is a work of fiction based on some historical facts. But judging by the response I witnessed from the 300-plus attendees at the Defender’s premiere screening of the movie on Sept. 15, as those sisters left the theater singing and dancing, and refusing to go home because they wanted to bask in the power and inspiration they received from the movie, many of them literally saying they now felt like The Woman King (their words; not mine), don’t tell me this is something we should refuse to see. Nah, playa, we need to be running to theaters to check this movie out; and bring everyone we know with us.
SPEAK TO MY HEART, LORD
And as I’ve already stated, this movie, this work of art, touches something deep in viewers. One of my mentors, the Presiding Bishop of the Shrine of the Black Madonna, D. Kimathi Nelson, often talks about the fact that our people, whether those biblical heroes or others throughout the trans-generational story of our people, who committed their lives to doing their part to empower our people, did so not because they made a rational decision, but because they were moved and touched in their spirit to do the irrational. Something spoke to their heart, their higher self, their inner divinity, and they were moved to give the kind of commitment to the Black movement for empowerment that makes no practical sense.
For a few people, exposure to information in a textbook, lecture, or documentary can do that. For others, a lived experience may move them to give of themselves for the betterment of our people. For many others, some message from the realm of art can do it. The Woman King is one of those things. I’ve already seen its potential to activate that power given to each of us at birth by the Creator. Certainly, there are all kinds of things out in the world that Blackfolk need to boycott and stay away from. But something that can ignite in us our best self, our inner hero, should not be avoided. Rather, it should be celebrated and embraced.
I’ve gone on way longer than planned when I started penning this piece, and I still haven’t mentioned the master teacher of African history who lives in Atlanta. He’s a personal friend and someone whose opinion I greatly value. And because this brother has “forgotten” more African history than I’ve ever known, I was curious to hear his take on this call for a boycott of The Woman King because it supposedly lacks historical accuracy.
Surprisingly, but not really, he was all in on watching and celebrating The Woman King. And he used the impact of those 1970s “Blaxploitation” movies to make his point.
“The impact those movies had on us, just seeing folk who looked like us on the big screen, was invaluable, even though the movies were fiction and often crazy,” said Mwalimu Olatunji. “Those movies had us leaving the theater imitating the stars of the movie, and believing we had the power and feeling the confidence that we could change the world.”
There are several other reasons I could outline regarding why we all need to support The Woman King. But in the interest of time (mine and yours), I’ll conclude by listing what we’d be boycotting if we refused to support this movie.
THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE BOYCOTTING
A Black-owned business (production house) that can create game-changing art in the now and in the future if supported. Viola Davis and her husband own the production company (JuVee Productions) responsible for this movie. If we’re cool with white-led production companies continuing to refuse to make and fund and support movies that uplift us and spotlight our story, then I guess boycotting The Woman King makes sense. But I swear I’m tired of hearing Blackfolk say, “We need more Blackfolk making decisions about what movies are being made,” then turning around calling for a boycott of a company owned and operated by Blackfolk who are making decisions about the movies they make. Somebody make it make sense.
A Black woman-led major motion picture, which is a supreme rarity in Hollywood. Davis is a legendary actress and winner of the top acting awards on the planet, yet, she has mentioned in countless interviews the ceilings and roadblocks that are in full effect blocking her and her sisters from being all they can be. Boycotting one of the few movies that has not only one sister lead (Davis) but several others who showed up and showed out in the movie makes it that much more difficult for future projects that place a well-deserved and long overdue spotlight on Black women.
An opportunity to inspire interest in Pan-African history. On my all-time favorite list of fiction writings is a now hard-to-find work of historical fiction titled My Glorious Brothers by Howard Fast. The book chronicles the leaders of the Maccabean Wars and the high priest and his sons from the country town of Modein on the outskirts of the holy city of Jerusalem, who were mere farmers that ended up leading their people in battle against the most feared army in the known world at the time—the Greeks. Their story has been ignored by most Christians, but it wasn’t ignored by Jesus when he was growing up, or his contemporaries.
The Maccabees, as these Hebrew heroes have been called by historians, were the stuff of legend during the time of Jesus, with parents naming their children after them in hopes their sons and daughters would have the kind of devotion and zeal for God and justice as the Maccabees possessed. Reading that book inspired me in ways that literally changed my life, and found me going to divinity school (Emory University’s Candler School of Theology) to get my Master of Divinity and learn all I could about the stories behind the stories that make up the faith of so many of us. I believe The Woman King has the power to inspire that kind of commitment in folk to delve into studying our story beyond the meager stuff fed to us in K-thru-college classrooms.
An opportunity to build bridges and tear down walls. For too long, there have been walls separating Blackfolk from America and our sisters and brothers from the diaspora (the African continent, the islands, and elsewhere). Yes, “divide-and-conquer” is still working on us. But it doesn’t have to be. The great historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke said the only difference between Blackfolk in America, on the African continent, and in the Caribbean, etc. is where the ships carrying the enslaved stopped. Some of us got off the boat in the islands. Some in the Carolinas, New Orleans, or Galveston. Some never got on the boat, but were negatively impacted by what happened to our Pan-African family nonetheless. But we’ve allowed these false, superficial divisions of language and geography to separate us for far too long.
A movie that celebrates our Africanness and spotlights the Ifa faith practiced to this day in the Motherland, in the islands, and in many parts of the Americas offers us a golden opportunity to tear down those walls that divide us, and build bridges to unite.
Okay, so this long-ass soliloquy wasn’t brief. My bad. But neither has been the period of Blackfolk being demeaned on screens big and small. And because The Woman King lifts us up, I think we need to be about the business of lifting it up, as well. But if you’re on the fence about it, I’ll leave you with the words of Reverend Albert B. Cleage Jr., known to many as the “Father of Black Liberation Theology.”
In his 1972 book Black Christian Nationalism: New Directions for the Black Church, Cleage shared what he called the yardstick by which Blackfolk should judge everything in order to make sense of a nonsensical world and situation.
Cleage said: “If it supports the Liberation Struggle of Black people, then it is good. If it is in opposition to the Liberation Struggle of Black people, then it is bad. If it supports the Liberation Struggle of Black people, then it is moral. If it opposes the Liberation Struggle, then it is immoral. If it supports the Liberation Struggle of Black people, then it is the will of God. If it opposes the Liberation Struggle of Black people, then it is satanic. With this simple key to the mysteries of life, both events and institutions can be judged.”
I dare say, if we use this yardstick when assessing The Woman King, or if we simply reflect on the power and confidence Black women, girls, men, and boys feel after seeing it, boycotting this movie would be the absolute last thing on our minds.
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