When the musical movie Black is King was launched in 2020, African audiences and a few critics stated it defamed and distorted the continent’s tradition and historical past.
They described its Afrocentric portrayal of Africa as “Wakanda-esque”, a reference to the fictional East African nation popularised by Black Panther, the seminal 2018 film about Black superheroes.
Directed and written by American singer Beyoncé, who was additionally its government producer, Black is King is described by Disney – on whose platform it may be streamed – as a undertaking geared toward highlighting “the great thing about custom and Black excellence” and honouring the “voyages of Black households, all through time”.
But, similar to Black Panther, it’s saddled with legendary depictions that fabricate the implausible and useless impression that in pre-colonial Africa – a supposedly wealthy and trendy Black utopia – African women and men have been merely majestic kings and queens. In fact, regardless of the lavish efforts at contrived Blackness, many beloved Beyoncé’s 85-minute movie, and a few reviewers labelled it a “breath of contemporary air” that “celebrates African locales, kinds and music”.
Quick-forward to September 2022: Africa and the African diaspora have a equally mesmerising and controversial cinematic manufacturing to marvel at in The Girl King.
Produced by Academy Award winner Viola Davis and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, it’s in regards to the Agodjie, a feminine army regiment that protected the dominion of Dahomey (present-day Benin) within the 1800s.
The 6,000-strong regiment reportedly began out as a palace guard in roughly 1700, and its fighters have been formally married to the king as third-rank wives – spouses he didn’t have sexual relations with. On the time, the Agodjie have been the one feminine troopers on the earth that fought in wars.
However right here’s the factor: In addition they usually participated in slave raids.
Dahomey was rich and it thrived on promoting slaves to European merchants. King Gezo, who dominated the dominion between 1818 and 1858, explicitly stated that the slave commerce was “the supply and the glory” of his folks’s wealth.
Nevertheless, to the detriment of African historical past, The Girl King conceals Dahomey’s participation within the transatlantic slave commerce between 1715 and 1850.
It means that Dahomey was, the truth is, an anti-slavery kingdom, when it definitely wasn’t. The movie additionally portrays the Agodjie as freedom fighters, whereas they have been simply unusual troopers who captured and offered slaves.
It’s, primarily, a deeply sanitised model of the sombre reality about slavery and Nineteenth-century Africa, replete with candy and melodramatic nostalgia for an Afrocentric fantasy.
Julian Tennon, Davis’s husband and co-producer of The Girl King, has defended the film’s substantial flaws, claiming: “It’s historical past however we have now to take license. We’ve got to entertain folks.”
All through the trade’s historical past – as witnessed in The Beginning of a Nation and Gone With the Wind – Hollywood administrators and producers have largely refused to make movies that depict slavery precisely.
Django Unchained, the 2012 revisionist Western movie written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, lacks nuance in its portrayal of slavery. Lincoln, additionally launched that yr, suggests Black folks didn’t combat to finish slavery – white folks did. In the meantime, the 2013 Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, has confronted criticism for failing “to signify Black resistance to enslavement”.
When Hollywood producers, equivalent to Davis, determine that information about slavery are dispensable, they stand to lose their credibility.
Their work is a far cry from the darkish and difficult instances when the reality about slavery mattered to African American storytellers. From the 1830s to the Eighteen Nineties, previously enslaved folks used their experiences to make clear, and humanise the horrendous actuality of slavery, constructing help for abolition.
Consider Frederick Douglass’s 1845 guide, Narrative of the Lifetime of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Or of Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 basic, Incidents within the Lifetime of a Slave Lady. These accounts gave uncooked and unblemished expression to the brutal realities of slavery.
In response to the Nationwide Humanities Middle at North Carolina College, “The fugitive or freed or ‘ex’ slave narrators have been anticipated to offer correct particulars of their experiences inside bondage, emphasising their sufferings beneath merciless masters and the energy of their will to free themselves.”
The storytellers, primarily, needed to be trustworthy. Brutally trustworthy.
In the present day, the spirit of the Black Lives Matter motion calls for that writers, producers and executives in Hollywood, be they Black, brown or white, take note of element and keep away from creating revisionist narratives that search to average the crimes dedicated by each Europeans and Africans throughout the transatlantic slave commerce.
Africans did promote different Africans into slavery. That tremendously important element can’t be bent or prevented. Nor should it, after all, be weaponised to minimise or dismiss the culpability of European slave merchants.
Attempt as she might, Davis can’t supply redemption to Africans that captured and offered folks by erasing Dahomey’s slave buying and selling credentials within the search of a false however feel-good narrative which may attraction to a “common” viewers, together with white folks.
Positive, the historical past of Dahomey, and particularly the Agodjie, is outstanding and undeniably fascinating, however as Black folks, that shouldn’t diminish our shared dedication to disseminate the reality in our tales.
Lest we overlook, loads of pre-colonial African states opposed the slave commerce. Nzinga Mbemba (1446–1543), who dominated the dominion of Kongo, for instance, wrote to the king of Portugal, João III, in 1526, to demand an finish to the unlawful depopulation of his kingdom. His successor, Garcia II, did likewise, however with out a lot success. Different states that resisted the slave commerce embrace Futa Toro and Futa Jallon in West Africa.
The inventive convergence of African historical past and capitalism might function an excellent platform to determine informative, action-packed and thought-provoking movies and conversations in regards to the continent, Blackness and slavery.
Nevertheless, The Girl King quantities to a wasted alternative to creatively discover a vital time in African historical past. The inclination by Davis to defer to wild romanticism (in lieu of elementary information) does an unbelievable disservice to the African societies decimated by slavery and the reminiscence of 12 million souls shipped overseas.
Black is King, Black Panther and The Girl King display an obsessive and relentless willpower to eschew actuality and reinvent Africa’s previous. It’s time to respect the very fact Africa has a wealthy, vibrant and imperfect historical past.
In 2020, Davis paradoxically requested: “With any film – are folks prepared for the reality?”
Black persons are. Filmmakers claiming to talk for Africa must be too.
The views expressed on this article are the creator’s personal and don’t essentially mirror Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.