Reaction to The Woman King: From an African American Muslim woman

blog movie review Sep 21, 2022
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Reaction to The Woman King: From an African American Muslim woman
16:01
 

I am the descendant of Africans enslaved in America. According to my Ancestry results, although mixed with various West African countries and some European heritage, the largest part of my DNA is from Benin and Togo. According to my African Ancestry results, my paternal lineage is that of the Bissa tribe. Using a combination of these results, the best claim I can make is being connected to the Bissa tribe of northern Togo through my father’s father fathers 500 to 1000 years ago. The Bissa tribe were Muslim before the slave trade began, so I know my ancestors were Muslim before being stripped of who they were after being brought to America.

My parents converted back to Islam in the 1960s and I was born and raised (Orthodox-Sunni) Muslim. As a child, my parents didn’t put emphasis on or show interest in our African heritage. It was an intrigue that grew in my adult years.

As African-Americans, our greatest exposure to our history is that of being enslaved, oppressed, killed, and maimed for the crime of being black in America. My mother recalled stories of her childhood, helping her grandparents on the farm they sharecropped, and encountering racism and abuse by white people. As an adult, I understand that this is part of the reason my parents chose to emphasize an Islamic identity to cling to because they only knew of their own lived experiences of racism. They wanted to break that trauma by trying to disconnect from that part of our blackness. And they themselves knew nothing of pre-enslaved African history to teach us. I wanted to break this cycle of ancestral ignorance because I believe knowing our history can better connect us to who we are as individuals and unite us as a people.

I am reminded that Allah (God) says in the Quran: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). [49:13]

I’m starting this review with this information about me so you may consider that my lens is that of a descendant of enslaved Africans in America whose family returned to Islam. Although the movie does not make direct reference to religion, I can only view it through my own lens as an African-American Muslim.

As Muslims, we are taught the ancestral heritage of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) and his familiar connection to each Prophet and Messenger before him. We are taught the history of his tribe of Quraish and how the Prophet (ﷺ) never shied away from his people. Despite even being cast out because of his mission, he still yearned for his homeland. He still sought to call HIS people to goodness, not simply because of his Prophethood but also because of his love for his people.

This is a connection that still eludes African-Americans. When brought to America, we were stripped of not just our physical freedom but also our language, our names, our religion, and any semblance of our culture. We can not replace 400 years of separation, but we can repair it beginning with knowing.


TRUE STORY?

The movie ‘The Woman King’ is the true story of the Agojie Women Army of the Dahomey kingdom in Benin some 200 years ago. Although there were some creative liberties in writing the movie (as with most biopic movies), by all accounts the events portrayed are as accurate as can be expected with the information known.

The people of Benin are notoriously known as being the first Africans to sell other Africans to Europeans. Europeans initiated the African slave trade by sowing further dissension between warring tribes and by offering them guns and horses in exchange for their captives of war. And if one tribe did not take the offer for themselves, then they were threatened with the fact that the other tribe would take the offer and secure the “advanced technology” of muskets and horses. The decision of the tribes was self-preservation… at what cost?

The film touches on the complexity of the decision that African Tribes were forced into by Europeans. Sell or be sold. The story line is structured around tribal war and the slave trade and Viola Davis’ character, Nanisca, convincing the King to abandon the slave trade which made them a rich powerful tribe for other means of trade like the abundance of palm oil at their disposal.

This history makes some people uncomfortable, because as Americans we are trained to not just white-wash history but also look at it through rose-colored glasses. Viewing our history, both its good, bad and ugly truths, is a hard task. But we must take a long hard look because turning a blind eye to history dooms us to repeat it. It’s even harder to accept the complexity of history without judgment, because in truth none of us know what decision we would have made in that environment, in that society and given those choices.  

THE WOMEN

According to written historical accounts, the Agojie Women Army of the Dahomey kingdom was a strong force of 6,000 female soldiers who ran a commanding army that fought with fierceness and slashed off their enemy's heads to give to their king as trophies of war. They were called “Amazons” by European visitors because of their similarities to the warrior women of Greek mythology.

These women were fearless and fierce, and the movie portrayed them in their historical light, with exciting fight scenes, weaponry and epic heroine deaths. They made heads roll…literally. As a lover of heroic films like Braveheart, this was a huge highlight for me. It was detailed but not graphic. Blood spilled but not enough to gross me out. The fight scenes had me gripping my seat, wiping tears and still wanting more.

The story in the movie is then built and expanded on with the standing of the Agojie army within society and the relationships of the women within the army. They were revered by their people, honored and respected by the king and notoriously feared by other tribes.

Viola’s role as Nanisca was that of the general of the army. She embodied all the characteristics that one would expect of a general, and in true character development of a well written role, found the strength to embrace her past pain and womanhood. (I’m trying to not give too many spoilers). She is respected by the king and in the end promoted to “Woman King” to join him in his rule. Historically, the “Woman King” role in the Dahomey kingdom was one of the only tribal roles in the region that upheld women’s rule alongside a man. The movie is ultimately a tribute to that fact.

Then there’s the young feisty new recruit Nawi, played by actress Thuso Mbedu who’s there to shake things up, break rules, act on principle, and fight the patriarchy. Because what’s a good female flick without fighting the patriarchy?

Nawi complains and points out the double standards of soldiers in the male army being allowed wives and families but the female Agojie army having to swear to celibacy and live a life without love. To avoid more spoilers, I’ll just say this was a rule we don’t see resolved for the Agojie as a whole.

 

The Men

MOST of the men are extras and supporting actors at best. This is the first movie that centers black women as both the heroine and savior. In previous movies, no matter the heroics of black people and black women, the “savior” somehow becomes a man and more often than not a white man.

We are so used to seeing men centered (and whiteness centered), even in contrived realities, that it seems strange not to have a man be centered in the film. A film that focuses on women does not emasculate the men any more than a film focused on black people is racist. The film was about the women. Period.

 

The Sisterhood

The sisterhood, mentorship and expansion of roles and relationships of the women within the army was masterfully done in a way that only women writers could have done (regardless of their skin color). It was both authentic and relatable.

The film showed these women in almost every aspect of their lives. Their training, their celebration, the pure black joy shown in the traditional rhythmic dances and songs they shared, the moments of comfort in braiding one another’s hair, sharing stories and advice. These women earned and shared a bond of sisterhood created far before the battlefield. In fact MOST of the movie were not on the battlefield.

With the balance of so much black joy and love to balance the battlefield scenes shown throughout the movie, what one takes away from the movie is more of a reflection of the viewer than the movie itself.

 

Visual Portrayal of the Women

The women in the film are also physically strong and skilled at fighting. The actresses speak at length during several interviews of the months and hours they spent training to prepare for their roles. Their physical preparation was to make their characters authentic.

They are portrayed in their natural hair, minimum make-up and un-exaggerated clothing. In a social media filtered world, and fantasy movies where the women normally go through hell-and-back with only a chipped nail, it’s a challenge to the viewer to see women in their natural state. To see their hair braided, curled and napped up. No laid edged, flowing straight weaves, make-up contour, or golden highlights. Simply black women…dark skinned black women in their natural beauty. 

We have been brainwashed to hold the damsel in distress of white femininity as a ruler. The Woman King forces us to look at the real beauty and ask ourselves what is beautiful and why? Is it softness, weakness, strength, confidence, or is it whiteness?

The same standards of beauty that we claim we want to dismantle, many have used as a way to criticize the portrayal of these women.

When we see women confident in their physical strength, why do we view that as taking away from their femininity? Femininity is not one thing or one way. Cultures throughout history have made it necessary for women to have different roles, sometimes required by society and sometimes by circumstances.

When we look inside Islamic history, we see women within the Seerah (Life of the Prophet Muhammad ) play many different roles.

Sometimes we must be a safe space for our men to be vulnerable, as Khadijah ( رضي الله عنه‎) the wife of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) did when he ran to her in fear after seeing the angel Gabriel for the first time.

Sometimes we are the warrior of protection for our men as Nusaybah Bint Ka’ab ( رضي الله عنه‎) did for the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) during the battle of Uhud. He (ﷺ) said he looked to his right, to his left, in front of him and behind him, and there she was fighting the enemy.

Sometimes we need to be the voice of reason to guide them, as Umm Salama ( رضي الله عنه‎) did when the companions were not following the command of the Prophet (ﷺ) to shave their heads after attempting to make the pilgrimage. After he sought her advice, she advised the Prophet (ﷺ) to lead by example and cut his own hair for the people to do the same.

Womanhood and femininity are as complex as they are undefinable by one person’s definition. The Woman King challenges us to examine our own definitions of femininity and womanhood, and our view of black women and why. It makes us ponder over how much we really want to know about what was as opposed to what we feel should be.

The Woman King was, in its most simplistic view, “a pretty darn epic movie,” and in its most complex view, it requires us to introspectively question our reactions to the story line, the visuals, and not only how we react but why.

 

 
 
 
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