The Woman King’s Historical Lies: Why They Matter

Andy (History of Africa Podcast)

Andy is the host of the History of Africa Podcast, an educational audio program which recounts the epic accounts of Africa's past.

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11 Responses

  1. Doctor Jay says:

    I remember having a conversation with a good friend of mine about the film Gravity. He is a total space nerd, who worked for NASA for a short time. One of his complaints was that “It takes TWO burns to adjust an orbit, not ONE”. I nodded at this. The physics was correct. I asked him, “Would showing two burns instead of one have made the film better.” This kind of stopped him in his tracks.

    Film relies on brevity. It relies on implying a bunch of things rather than telling you about them. Films that tell you everything in excruciating detail are called documentaries. They aren’t always boring, but they engage with us humans in a very different way.

    I think that discussions of the politics of Dahomey are important to some. They aren’t to me. The film wouldn’t speak to me on that level. And yes, this is where charges of cultural appropriation walk in to the room. (I have no idea whether they are valid to make or not).

    This conversation seems like that one I had with my friend. There’s one bit of Gravity that doesn’t work for me, even though I know what the purpose of it was, it just wasn’t justified enough by what was shown. But mostly, I prize it for the emotional territory, and the beautiful visuals. It’s a film, after all, not a textbook.

    And no, The Woman King is not a documentary.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      “I asked him, “Would showing two burns instead of one have made the film better.” This kind of stopped him in his tracks.”

      He probably stopped in his tracks because what you said was on the order of “let’s just show a helicopter just leaping upward off the ground, not having its rotors spinning or anything, because who has time to watch a helicopter’s rotor blades turn?Report

      • Doctor Jay in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Apparently you only work in binary, with simple yes or no answers, and nothing in between. And two burns instead of one is the same as the helicopter rotor not spinning.

        You are welcome to that world, but I want no part of it.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to Doctor Jay says:

          “Apparently you only work in binary, with simple yes or no answers, and nothing in between. ”

          You know, I’m wrong; maybe your good friend stopped in his tracks because he realized that you were actually being kind of a jerk about the whole thing and that further discussion wasn’t merited.

          I mean, you’re really going to sit here and tell me that it’s totally impossible that there could ever be a depiction of something in reality that’s just so laughably wrong that it speaks to ill-craft on the part of the movie maker?Report

  2. Greg In Ak says:

    Haven’t seen the flick. Hollywood flix are known to typically be weak or bad history so i’m not sure how this is different from most. It would be great to have really good history in movies but that has rarely been the case.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Greg In Ak says:

      Unlike science, real history sometimes — often — makes for not-good cinema. That’s true even if there are germs of really good stories to be told there. Real history is complex and ambiguous and was done by people whose cultures and morals are different than our own.

      Movies tell us emotional stories, and the stories audiences enjoy best are of protagonists triumphing and becoming heroes through their moral choices. When morals of ages past are different from our own, that can lead to uncomfortable results. Consider the end of the Odyssey, for instance: It’s by then twenty years since the Trojan War ended and there’s been no sign of nor message from Odysseus. Penelope is to any reasonable estimation widowed, but still beautiful and wealthy and powerful. Unsurprisingly, she has suitors who offer themselves in marriage. Odysseus finally does come home but keeps his identity concealed, and then stalks and kills all of Penelope’s suitors, before… record scratch sound wait, what? To our modern sensibilities, the suitors haven’t done anything wrong, so it feels like Odysseus is way out of line here. But that’s not how the Greeks saw it.Report

  3. InMD says:

    I always think it would be really cool to see actual attempts at historical accuracy in films, and am pleasantly surprised when they at least try. Unfortunately I think the more accurate the movie the more niche it becomes.

    Reading this made me think of something like Braveheart, which was notoriously historically inaccurate and whose politics are ridiculously ahistorical but obviously designed to flatter and appeal to an American audience. That and the Patriot which I believe was criticized at the time for the absurd way it dodges the issue of slavery even when directly confronted with it. Maybe I just need to write a critique of Mel Gibson.

    Anyway I think the tension is that what sells tickets in historical epics are big battles and incredible set pieces, and the people who produce them will say whatever it takes, true or not, to get a paying audience. The best way to learn about all of these figures who sound far more interesting than their cinema counterparts is probably in a book.Report

  4. CJColucci says:

    Several years ago, my African-American sister-in-law was looking at an atlas, apparently opened to Africa, and asked: “Where’s Dahomey?”
    I replied, to general hilarity: “In da hood.”

    Don’t forget to tip your waitstaff.Report

  5. InMD says:

    Just another comment on the Marvel-ization. When I saw previews for this I thought it was some kind of spin off of Black Panther and until reading this had no idea it was about historical people and events.Report

    • PD Shaw in reply to InMD says:

      The official trailer says its based upon “powerful true events,” but seems to be hiding what that story is, seemingly making it appear to be an early anti-colonial struggle against white slavers. I don’t quite get the Marvel touch from the trailer, as much as some of the choreographed fighting that I associate with Asian cinema. In any event, it appears to be trying to appeal to different groups.

      I don’t think films do a good job on historical truths, but at least in this day and age, you could find good articles like this one that explain the background. I dislike some of the quotes in Lincoln that are of dubious authenticity that Spielberg intended to have contemporaneous political importance. Mostly though on certain topics are touched on like slavery, its going to be a minefield and there is almost no way to win.Report

  6. Marchmaine says:

    Appreciated the summary and context for the history of the region and peoples. Nicely done.

    Ultimately though, Hollywood is more than anything Butterfield could imagine – it ratifies and glorifies our eternally emerging present – at scale and without review, and without criticism. It dodges criticism by disclaiming ‘truth’ then squelches criticism by proclaiming ‘gnostic-truth’; the truthiness of the historical thing that can only be revealed by our current present. It becomes the story of the past we know they were ‘trying’ to do. It has nothing to do with ‘film making’. The story is the project and the story is about the present.

    The Whigs have come and gone; long live the Whigs.

    “[Whig History is] the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.”

    Side note: As much as I enjoyed JJ Norwich’s Byzantine histories … could never shake the feeling each emperor was rather implicitly judged on an Etonian scale:
    1) Was he of the right sort to begin with?
    2) Did he have a pragmatic, but detached and vaguely agnostic religious outlook?
    3) Was he good at War (sports), but not obsessed with it?
    4) Was he appropriately promiscuous while minding his familial duties?
    5) Could he instrumentalize those around him for his personal benefit and secondarily the public good?
    6) Was he able to align his personal benefits with some (any) notion of the public good?
    7) Was the public good sufficiently base and cynical that no one would get caught up in ‘debates’ about it.
    8) Would he gouge out a rival’s eyes (correct way) or kill him (plebe).
    9) Finally… Bulgarians, LOL.

    A sort of updated Gibbon to a newer more modern Whig standard.Report