The Woman King: a disruptive, unruly site of countervisuality

by Nandi Pointer

“The slave trade is the reason we prosper but at what price?
It is a poison slowly killing us and the Europeans know this.”
—General Nanisca in The Woman King

The Woman King (dir. Prince-Bythewood, 2022) is an historical epic film that tells the story of the Agojie, an all-female warrior unit that was both brutal and heroic. It protected and provided capital, in the form of human bodies, to the West African kingdom of Dahomey during the 17th to 19th centuries. The film opened to a $19 million debut, received rave reviews and was one of three films in 2022 to receive an A+ Cinemascore, pointing to the cast’s stellar performance and the film’s high production values. According to Robert Daniels (2022) of RogerEbert.com, “The magnitude and the awe this movie inspires are what epics like Gladiator are all about” (para 10) . Visually, the movie is filled with palace intrigues, sumptuous ceremonies and stirring battles, and a cast of thousands (or thereabouts!) (Dargis, 2022). Its shooting location is in Africa. It occupies a space of contradistinction since historically, the majority of big budget, epic productions have been reserved for white, male directors, with storylines that cater to a white audience.

This paper examines how and to what ends The Woman King challenges Hollywood’s longstanding patterns of representing Black people, particularly Black women. Through visual and textual analysis of the film itself as well as reference to media coverage and interviews with filmmakers and cast, I argue that The Woman King is a disruptive yet unruly site of countervisuality. Although these two words are often used interchangeably, I use the terms disruptive and unruly in distinct ways in my analysis: disruptive, causing a radical change to the normative paradigm of filmmaking and visual representation, yet unruly, not amenable to discipline or control, in that this film was received very differently by Black and white audiences. Following Mirzoeff (2011), I define countervisuality as asserting the right to look in a way that seeks to challenge what Fanon (1961) referred to as the “aesthetic of respect for the status quo” (p. 3-4). The Woman King disrupts the status quo, marking a forward decolonial orientation, thus representing a site of disidentification in Hollywood, as Muñoz (1999) theorized.

The Agojie warrior represents a powerful site of countervisuality . The Agojie are revered by the people of Dahomey who welcome them home from battle.
The new Agojie recruits form a sisterhood during the course of their training. The Agojie chant in unison as they prepare to battle the Oyo.

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s powerful direction of a film about the powerful Agojie woman warrior can be seen as a site of disidentification with the history of stereotypical representations of Black women in Hollywood. The film offers a possible reclaiming of Black female subjectivity by illustrating how minority subjects work with/resist the conditions of (im)possibility that mainstream Hollywood culture generates, fracturing the dominant visual paradigm and its colonialist imaginations through the representation of strong, black, courageous African women, who are placed at the forefront of the audience’s viewing experience.

Much has been written about the dominant visual paradigm in Hollywood that has long privileged whiteness both in front of and behind the camera (e.g., Young, 1995; Dyer, 1993; Hall, 1989). Although an #Oscarssowhite movement trended in 2015 and 2016, when no people of color were nominated for the 20 acting nominations, the lack of minority representation in Hollywood persists. A recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (2022) looked at the gender and race of directors behind the 100 highest-grossing movies of 2022 and found a gross lack of representation. Only 9 percent were women, with 2.7 percent being women of color. Bythewood’s film about the Agojie, in the context of Africa, disrupts the privileging of white narratives and representations in Hollywood by creating and distributing a mainstream, high-budget production that is the product of a Black female gaze that centers the experience of Black female directors and actresses.

The historical exhumation and current visual representation of the Agojie, the fierce women warriors of Dahomey, works to explode the temporality of the colonial mode of representation of otherness and to elicit a greater understanding of visuality’s role in shaping our understanding of the other (e.g., Mirzoeff, 2011; Hall, 1993; Fanon, 1961). As Prince-Bythewood stated, “The more I learned about them, the more I got excited about putting this incredible culture—and us—onscreen in a way that we haven’t been able to see ourselves.” Although disruptive, this film text is also unruly, not amenable to discipline or control, as the Agoiie warrior represents the embodiment of the female anti-hero, a narrative protagonist who lacks the qualities of a conventional hero. What is particularly complex and unusual about this film is that the exhumation of this painful yet foundational moment in Black American history narrates an uncomfortable historical reality: that African people were both victims and perpetrators of the transatlantic slave trade; they were complicit in the subjugation, monetization, and oppression of Black American people.

Izogie, played by Lashana Lynch, is the embodiment of a fierce Agojie warrior. Slaves were sold by auction at the ports of Ouidah.

The script for The Woman King, written by two queer white women, further contributes to the unruliness of this film as a countervisual media text, as neither African nor Black Americans penned this very African story. “Power is not only the ability to tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story of that person,” Nigerian novelist Adichie (2009) cautions about the danger of a single story. That means that every situation is full of contradictions, which take more than one story to tell. By outlining how The Woman King works through disruption and unruliness, I hope to show how the film allows space for an alternative visuality, in addition to the possibility of reinvesting in a different meaning. It provides a rearticulation, in the words of Stuart Hall (2011), of Black representation, aesthetics and identity. Specifically, I focus on the representation of Blackness, the female body, and the emergence of a Black female gaze, detailing how the film works within our culture as a countervisual media site that fractures the dominant visual paradigm that frequently negates, distorts, or makes invisible the inclusion of blackness in feature film.

My analysis of The Woman King has three primary areas of concern. First, I explore the historical context of the film. Second, in briefly sketching the history of Hollywood’s representation of Blackness and Black identity, I highlight the new and different possibilities available for Black filmmakers and actors. Finally, in engaging the Black female body as a political medium fighting for its sovereignty, I turn to the Black female gaze as a mode of seeing that shifts the visual paradigm that privileges whiteness and speaks to a broader Black female aesthetics.

The barracoons of Ouidah:
an imperialist colonial project

“But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw, was my people had sold me and the white people had bought me…. It impressed upon me the universal nature of greed and glory.”
—Zora Neal Hurston in Barracoon

America’s first visual domain, as Mirzoeff (2011) states, was the slave plantation. It made manifest Europe’s imperial colonial project to bring slaves from Africa to work in the Americas, with the captured falling into a necropolitics of extraction. Slavery defined a critical site of visuality that made power and authority appear self-evident, thus challenging the autonomy of the slaves’ right to look and willingness to be seen. From 1801 to 1866, an estimated 3,873,000 Africans were exchanged for gold, guns, and other European and American merchandise (Neal-Hurston, xix). The shores of Benin, at Ouidah, on the coast of West Africa, bordered by beautiful, golden beaches, marks the last site at which Black Americans were African and whole in their identity. It was a liminal moment in which, although dispersed through various tribal factions, Black Americans were African, a people who knew their history, language, and culture. This was a time before African identity was shattered into a million pieces, only to be rearticulated as that of the Black slave in America, a person with no rights, no family, no language, no country, an abjection without subjectivity. As Hartman (1997) so eloquently states in her unrelenting exploration of slavery and freedom,

“The status of the past is experienced most significantly in terms of loss and discontinuity. This past cannot be recovered, yet the history of the captive emerges precisely at this site of loss and rupture” (p. 125).

The African identity was stretched, pulled, and re(formed) as it traversed the cold, dark, bottomless depths of the Atlantic Ocean, housed in the hulls of cramped, leaky ships, the sense of connection, place, and belonging growing ever more distant, as black waterlogged bodies, some already dead, bloated, and waiting to be thrown overboard, inched closer and closer to America’s shores.

Slavery’s long legacy is racism. As Mbembe (2020) notes, “Racism has become the political tool that enables the biological division of the human species and the justification of the extermination of those considered inferior” (p. 22). In the economy of biopower, the function of racism is to regulate the distribution of death and to make possible the murderous functions of the state (p. 17). More than four hundred years later, Black Americans are still contending with the “entanglements” and “displacements” that resulted from the transatlantic slave trade; we are in search of the roots of our ontology, identity, and spaces to be seen within America’s powerful visual complex. As Christina Sharpe (2016) states, “Always Black being seems lodged between cargo and being” (p. 110-111). Films like The Woman King work within the culture to dislodge Black beings from the ship, offering a moment of respite from the sea, by bringing those bodies to land, to Africa, where Black viewers can gather another small piece of their largely unknown identity.

Just as the story of the Agojie was buried in the tombs of history for several centuries, so too was the last known book by Zora Neal-Hurston, Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’ published eight decades after it was written. In 1927, Zora Neal Hurston, a cultural anthropologist, ethnographer, and folklorist traveled to Plateau, Alabama and conducted extensive interviews with Kossala. Barracoon tells the story of Cudjo Lewis, a survivor of the Clotilda, the last slave known to have made the transatlantic journey, and resident of the freedman community Africatown. He trusted Hurston to tell his story and transmit it to the world. Kossola’s life journey is directly linked to the Agojie warriors of Dahomey as he was captured and taken from his village and then sold into slavery as a young boy.

He described to Hurston the mayhem that ensued in a predawn raid when his townspeople awoke to Dahomey’s female warriors, who slaughtered them in their daze. Those who tried to escape through the eight gates that surrounded the town were beheaded by the male warriors posted there. Kossala recalled the horror of seeing decapitated heads hanging from the warriors belts, and how on the second day, the warriors stopped the march in order to smoke the heads (Neal-Hurston, xx). After three days, they were incarcerated in the barracoons at Ouidah, near the Bight of Benin. There in the barracoons, as there in his Alabama home, Kossola was transfixed between two worlds, fully belonging to neither. The term “barracoon” describes the structures used to detain Africans who were to be sold and exported to Europe and the Americas. Some died while waiting for a ship to fill, which could take three to six months. This phase of the traffic was called the “coasting” period.

Hartman (1997) speaks to the enormity of the breach instituted by the transatlantic crossing of Black captives and the processes of enslavement: violent domination, dishonor, natal alienation, and chattel status. Sharpe (2016) expands on Hartman’s exploration of the legacies of slavery, illustrating how Black lives are animated by the afterlives of slavery:

“The weather transforms Black being. But the shipped, the held, and those in the wake also produce out of the weather their own ecologies. When the only certainty is the weather that produces a pervasive climate of anti-blackness, what must we know in order to move through these environments in which the push is always toward Black death” (106).

The Woman King works to produce its own ecology of representation and visuality that further instantiates the rich history and culture of Black/African people, while also tugging at the strings of human curiosity, potentially foregrounding in viewers a desire to learn more about the history of Africa. The dichotomy of historical fiction, as seen in the film The Woman King and in historical ethnography like Hurston’s Barracoon, illuminates the danger of a single story of oppression, the kind that novelist Adichie (2014) warns about. The Woman King, by functioning as a site of entertainment, could be seen as negating the lived human horrors experienced by those slaves, and their descendants living in America today. At the same time, this film is disruptive to the visual complex as an important site of representation, African history and the Black female gaze.

Disrupting the visual paradigm

The Woman King disrupts the colonialist visual paradigm by pulling the Agojie out from the dark annals of history and into the light of present day, making visible a long forgotten, highly complex story of a female military regiment from the African kingdom of Dahomey. Violence and the thirst for blood are deeply imbricated in the history of Dahomey. The kingdom of Dahomey established its power and expansion through a permanent state of war, brutally conquering other African states and enslaving their citizens to sell into the transatlantic slave trade. King Ghezo’s throne in Benin still sits on the skulls of four of his vanquished enemies, a striking visual testament to the legendary brutality of Dahomey. In 1727, Dahomey’s troops conquered the beautiful coastal city of Ouidah, expanding the boundaries of the kingdom and above all its influence in the region, making it the point of reference for European slave merchants. Western merchants and travel brokers moved across continents to trade with rulers of the mighty kingdom. The expansion of the kingdom continued when Dahomey’s army defeated Oyo’s empire. This success was achieved thanks to a well-trained army, but more importantly it was the result of the weapons brought to Africa by the Europeans.

King Ghezo’s throne sat on the skulls of Dahomey’s vanquished enemies. The Oyo Empire repeatedly attacked the Kingdom of Dahomey.

The intersection of European and African interests to instantiate a system of power and economic wealth based on the acquisition and sale of human bodies makes clear the complicated web of motivations and desires that would result in the imperialist slave complex and brutal commodification of the African body. The Fon of Dahomey was foremost among African peoples who resisted the suppression of the slave trade. Not only was the internal enslavement of their prisoners perceived as essential to their traditions and customs, but the external selling of their prisoners also afforded their kingdom wealth and political dominance. To maintain a sufficient “slave supply," the king of Dahomey instigated wars and led raids with the sole purpose of filling the royal stockade (Neal-Hurston, xix).

The film disrupts a longstanding slavery paradigm that wholly vilifies white Europeans as the sole progenitors of the slave trade. The visual representation of the Agojie’s slaughter and capture of Africans complicates by way of rupture present-day thinking that all Africans came to be slaves at the hands of rapacious white Europeans. This alternative narrative, grounded in historical truth, influences contemporary perceptions and ideologies about the transition of Africans to the Americas. An alternate Hollywood portrayal via the story of the Agojie illustrates that the complex lives and histories of Black people are worthy of representation and engagement.

The cinematic representation of Blackness

The Woman King does important cultural work that expands the representation of Blackness in Hollywood, creating a site for renewed interest in Black actors, African history, and a reframing of the discourse around representation in Hollywood. As Gillespie states,

“Race as a constitutive, cultural fiction has always been a consequential element of American history and social life, and antiblack racism, white supremacy, and the Racial Contract are foundational and systemic features of American life.”

The contours of invisibility and exclusion within the U.S. film industry shaped the experience of Black actors and audiences for decades, restricting their ability to feel worthy of inclusion. Invisibility is defined as something that cannot be seen or perceived and points to W.E.B. DuBois’s metaphor of the Veil, which symbolizes the inability of whites to see the powerful potentiality of Black humanity. It is the Veil that dampens and ultimately darkens African Americans’ “brightness,” that obfuscates and minstrelizes their lives and struggles (Rabaka, 47).

The Woman King (re)frames the perception of Blackness by allowing us to see Black agency both in front of and behind the camera. As Oscar, Emmy, and two-time Tony Award winning actress Viola Davis, who plays General Nanisca (2022) stated,

“It gave me the strength of a warrior, to have a belief in my ideas and my possibilities as an actor and the possibility of other Black actors too, younger Black actors coming up.”

Black popular culture, as Hall (1993) argues, has enabled the surfacing, inside the mixed and contradictory modes even of some mainstream popular culture, of elements of a discourse that is different from other forms of life, other traditions of representation. Black Panther, the first film helmed by a Black director, Ryan Coogler, to gross over a billion dollars at the box office, laid to rest the myth that Black filmmakers and leads cannot carry a Hollywood film. Coogler had been searching for a project that would incorporate the themes of African identity, personal responsibility and representation. The film proved to be revolutionary in its portrayal of an African brother and sister, one a Black superhero (T’Challa), the other the epitome of intellectual excellence (Shuri) on a mission to secure the safety of their people and the African nation Wakanda. The sequel, Wakanda Forever (2022), charted 2022’s second-best opening at the domestic box office and has grossed 859 million worldwide.

Both the Black Panther and The Woman King work as a sites of resistance to the dominant modes of representation of blackness that challenges the ideological paradigms instantiated by the imperialist slave complex that functioned by way of surveillance and authority. As Dorothy Roberts (2012) argues, the invention of race as an immutable fact of nature remains alongside the sociopolitical orders inaugurated by European colonial expansion and the American slave society, recreated in every modern era to reflect their special forms of subjugation. An early instantiation of this mode of subjugation and surveillance would occur on the beaches of Ouidah as African cargo, under the watchful eyes of guards, waited to be shipped to the Americas. Foucault (1977) famously expanded the idea of the panopticon, a mode of external surveillance, to a symbol of internal surveillance, and social control that extends into everyday life for all citizens. The film illustrates how the panopticon of surveillance, instantiated on the slave plantation, came into existence. In looking at the boundaries of Black identity formation there is both fluidity and continuity and at the same time there are ruptures as Black bodies come into contact with the colonial order.

The representation of Blackness in mainstream U.S. cinema has largely been reductive, relying on stereotypes, fixed in nature by a few simplified characteristics, that brings into question, as Hall (1993) notes, the capacity for self-recognition. The Hollywood studio system developed certain traditions in its formal choices that would vastly affect the treatment of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability in mainstream narrative films (Wiley & Sons, 5). Representation is always a fraught practice for minoritized subjects and plays an integral role in the organization of the modern world. It springs from the feeling that the treatment of social groups in cultural representation is part and parcel of how they are treated in life, that poverty, harassment, self-hate and discrimination are shored up and instituted by representation (Dyer, 1). According to Hall (2003), there have been many twists and turns in the ways in which the Black image has been represented in mainstream U.S. cinema. Yet, the repertoire of stereotypical figures drawn from 'slavery days' has never entirely disappeared.