This post began life as a roundup of films built on female power—a good tie-in to the forthcoming release of the Viola Davis-starring historical epic The Woman King, about the all-female fighters of the Kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin) in the 19th century, no? But history has overtaken that idea with the death of Queen Elizabeth II. It’s impossible to consider the relationship between women and power without taking into account the end of the longest period of rule by any woman in the history of humanity.
To some, she was a beloved grandmother figure; to others, a steadfast ruler who lead with the softest touch imaginable. Still others couldn’t separate her from the dark specter of British colonialism. None of these interpretations is all-encompassing, nor does any one cancel out any other. Power—whether inferred via inheritance, politics, or by some other means—is a complex matter, which is probably why its consideration has served as fodder for so many interesting movies.
Take The Woman King, which is not about an actual monarch but follows a powerful female leader and is set in Dahomey, a country that was later colonized by France. A group of highly skilled women warriors protecting their lands from outside invaders is the stuff of killer narratives—but some quarters have quibbled that the movie elides Dahomey’s own history of enslavement and conquest.
It’s all led me to wonder if we’re ever been, or ever will be, very good at evaluating our real-life female leaders, who may be judged, lauded, and vilified in unfair ways. But in the modern age, TV shows and movies have, at least, done a decent job of giving us memorable, sometimes provoking considerations of historical women in power.
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