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What Really Is the Woman King Controversy? Explained!

The movie, starring lead actress Viola Davis is about the Dahomey Kingdom and their struggle against the Oyo Empire and Brazilian slavers and their eventual victory, achieved by their all-female army called the Agojie. But the story midst the struggle also involves the relationship between the two leads who are revealed to have a close affinity.  

Pundits Think Viola Davis’s ‘The Woman King’ Tribe Contributed to Slavery.

Some people on social media have expressed their disapproval about the whitewashing of history and not showcasing the participation of the Dahomey  Kingdom in the “Atlantic Slave Trade”. Others have spoken up in defense of the movie and the Director has mentioned that those who do watch the movie will find that this issue has been addressed (Nansica speaks to King Ghezo to stop the slave trade. In actual history, the British after outlawing slavery, prevented the Dahomians from selling people into slavery). She further countered that such arguments and debates cannot be won on Twitter and hence, she has stopped participating in them. 

In a strictly economical and audience-appraisal sense, the movie has been successful.  It has achieved a not oft seen score of “A+” or “A” by polled audiences (out of which 59% were African Americans) and has achieved $19 million in earnings from its cinematic debut on the 16th of September 2022. 

What Really Is the Woman King Controversy

The people who stand in opposition to the movie, wish that this movie is not seen and is boycotted by moviegoers as it is not critical of the slavery promoted under Dahomey, but only celebratory of their positive aspects. 

The supporters of the film contest that sentiment and state that moviegoers should at least give this film a chance and let them judge it on its own merit. It seems, as mentioned above that that is what has happened. But considering the natural tendency in Americans to seek out works that are castigated, or even if we attribute it to the 

Streisand Effect (a banned thing gets more attention after being banned), this work seems to be doing well. 


To understand better the forces which are functioning behind this phenomenon, it  would be beneficial for the viewer to be intimated with the following concepts: 

1. Culture War 

2. Cancel Culture 

The understanding here will be provided from a US perspective for a US audience  (although with some historical and legal grounding). 

From a purely constitutional point of view, the United States has firm protection of  “Free Speech”, at a level which is a rarity for contemporaneous countries and generally so in Modern History (post 15th century). Although this strict protection of speech applies only to government restrictions and not to what private actors can do.  

With this established, it brings us to what a Culture War is. 

“Culture War” as a term comes from the German word, “Kulturkampf”, which means cultural struggle. A Kulturkampf (pronounced cull-tour-Kamph) in late 19th Century  Prussia, was fought between Otto Von Bismarck (the father of modern, united  Germany) and Pope Pius IX. What it meant was a battle between the government and the church on issues of paramount importance at that time, which needed to be addressed and power rested on the Roman Catholic Church. At that time it was between control of education and the responsibility of church appointments. 

Woman King Controversy

But what it reflected was the overall decline of the Church’s power in every domain,  which it was trying to retain. The scale of this conflict is sometimes compared to that of Puritanism in the 16th and 17th centuries, which marked the schism (not to be confused with the 11th-century great schism) between the Catholics (who upheld the primacy of the Pope on Earth) and the soon to be Protestants (who did not agree with that) (this is a simplification for brevity, we won’t get into the Reformation here). 

In Modern American society, the culture wars, while their nature and even their  existence is up for dispute, it can be said that there are issues which people feel very  strongly about and fight over, and hence, taking this into consideration, the culture  wars of the United States are mainly fought between the “secularists, progressives”, “traditionalists, conservatives”, “Capitalists, Socialists” and the “Libertarians,  Authoritarians”. Weaving a thread between these main combatants (so to speak) are the moderates, and those who weave a patch amongst different groups are the syncretists. Each has its own virtues and signaling which they carry out and try to entice others into joining their ranks to expand. 

In its current manifestation with respect to Woman King, it seems to be a contest between those who identify more with the “secularists, progressives, the left” and those who identify more with “American Right-Libertarians, Conservatives, the Right (conservatives in America due to their traditions tend to be more about Free  Speech)”. 

The first group does not want monetary support to go to a film, which, even though it has a diverse cast, does not excoriate slavery enough in their view, while the second group feels that speech should be free and the movie should be judged on its own merit, instead of boycotting or canceling it. Capitalists also need the profits from the sale of this film. 

Speaking of cancellation! 

It segues us to the next point. 

Cancel Culture (Boycotting/Protest) 

Cancel Culture in some form or the other has been there in the World. What’s today called Cancel Culture, is merely an updated term for boycott and protest. 

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Although those who practice canceling culture describe it as more as accountability,  “consequence culture”, simple protest and boycott, or making up for where the  Justice system lacks, protecting the marginalized. Its critics instead declare it to be bullying, vigilantism and disrupting civil behavior, and endangering people’s livelihoods and personal safety (a Dutch right-wing politician, Pim Fortuyn was ostensibly assassinated by left-wing activist Der Graaf because he was called a “Far Rightist”, or at least that was the perception which he held because of the demonization of his beliefs by the government and the media, in his words) and reduces their critical thinking. 

While cancellation has happened in all sections of society through history, its current usage is centered around academia and progressive businesses and circles, to  emphasize a certain exclusionism of people from the cultural sphere, perceived  rightly or wrongly by conservatives and moderates to be the exclusive domain of the 

Left and the Liberals. Where only one viewpoint is backed up and the rest, at best ignored, at worst expelled. Like a soft cultural revolution. There is some evidence to back up the recent preponderance of liberal and left thought and action on campuses and the media behemoth Hollywood.

A majority of professors in Universities  (excluding religious ones) self-identify as Liberal or moderate in recent years, which has been a growing trend for some decades. And Hollywood, while known to make fluff, is considered to now be more turbocharged in its Liberalism, and works considering social critique have seen an uptick, although some would say it’s still too slow and conciliatory.

Culture War

The Nature of Hollywood maybe so conducive, as it has always been a bit ahead of the curve in its thinking, as artists are perhaps attracted to unconventional thinking, or at least the powers that be exclude those who aren’t, for being boring, staid or conventional and unprofitable.  

A work or a person is said to be canceled, is done so once they have crossed a  boundary where their peers no longer think them worthy of being part of their group,  requiring either apology and obeisance or expulsion. This can be considered to be a  holdover from our Hunter-Gatherer past when social expulsion and opprobrium could mean death, death either from our peers, or death from the environment and being unable to fend for ourselves. Our brains evolved to include what is called  “social pain”, or a negative empathetic response to when we perceive to have done some social wrong, simply known as cringe. 

Canceled arose as a word taken from black colloquialism in the 80s and 90s in music and movie. Nile Rodgers, “Your Love Is Cancelled”, Barry Michael Cooper’s screenplay for New Jack City.  

The Last Words..

In the spirit of radical skepticism, it is better to be neither aware nor unaware of this film’s controversy. That is not to say that this article is telling you to be ignorant, but as you are at this moment, you are complete, and you needn’t worry to much about what isn’t there or is there being said about this movie. Experience the world intuitively, watch this film if the need arises, not to watch it, if the need does not arise. That is what this article is asking you to do, to keep equanimity of mind.

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