Were Black Panther and Woman King Enough to Change Hollywood’s Perspective of Sub-Sahara African Stories?
It’s certainly not popular to point out, but Hollywood has long derived stories for its movies from the African continent. From Cleopatra in 1963 to The Woman King in 2022, Hollywood has fairly regularly set films in Africa and given its spin on events that have taken place there – particularly since the turn of the millennium. However, seldom has the US movie market portrayed the goings-on of Africa in a particularly pleasant or even heroic light. Most movies focus on war, apartheid, and other such crimes.
While undoubtedly powerful films, Hotel Rwanda (2004), Beasts of No Nation (2015), The Last King of Scotland (2006), Blood Diamond (2006), and Tears of the Sun (2003) were all big US flicks, but are all based on mostly recent events, depicting war-torn nations. Now, studios shouldn’t have a checklist of points to hit per year in a similar way that Idris Elba’s Esquire interview on February 8, 2023, made the good point that actors shouldn’t box themselves into a race box. That said, the focus on particularly Sub-Saharan African stories should pivot.
Rather than essentially documenting the torrid experiences dotted around the continent, more stories that revel in the ancient cultures, historic triumphs, uniqueness of the people, and mythologies should come to the fore. A step in this direction for Hollywood looks to have been The Woman King, which received a decent $50 million budget and returned over $94 million, per The Numbers. The story of the West African kingdom of Dahomey and the all-female Agojie warrior unit offered something different from the usual approach, but there’s much more to explore.
Exciting myths and culture to put to film
In prevalent myths of the continent, the Anansi of West African cultures could make for a grand antagonist in a horror or thriller-type movie, being the trickster spider who preys on the unsuspecting. Or, a story following the Ethiopian belief that some blacksmiths were capable of changing into werehyenas could be interesting – if not done in a generic, B-movie, creature feature kind of way.
Along with countless great mythical tales and folklore stories, moviemakers could turn to the real leaders of the continent pre-Colonialism. Mansa Musa of Mali led his empire to vast riches, expanded the nation, and was known for his generosity, but of course, conquered many settlements in doing so. Queen Nyamazana was hailed as a brilliant leader, strategist, and helped to found modern Zimbabwe through an alliance made by marriage.
Individual artefacts can also inspire great entertainment, such as in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – even though the 3,000-year-old Ark of the Covenant hasn’t been found. More poignantly, as alluded to in Black Panther (2018), masks are greatly significant. In western cultures, masks hide the wearer, while in African cultures, the wearer benefits from their powers to help others. It’s this angle that’s powered into 9 Masks of Fire. The Masks of Fire play as scatters, which payout when the power of three or more combine on the screen, while the African Shield free spins symbols add further multipliers to the wins.
Steps in the right direct from Hollywood
With a few exceptions, Hollywood has shelled up in recent years, pumping cash and promotion into previously successful IPs and fearing leaps of creativity. This isn’t entirely without merit. Top Gun: Maverick’s arrival 36 years post-Top Gun made nearly $1.5 billion worldwide and was hailed as saving “Hollywood’s ass” by Steven Spielberg. It was a return to well-made, action entertainment without overtly preaching to the audience. Still, what has hindered over-hyped productions in the right direction has usually been poor and unimaginative writing that fails to entertain.
With the right team involved, as the 94 percent Tomatometer and 82 percent total audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes indicate, movies delving into far-flung histories can be successful. The fact that creatives have a gluttony of real and mythical tales and figures to pick from in Africa for inspiration should make the process fairly easy. In retrospect, it looks as though The Woman King’s promotion hindered its success, and perhaps the fictitious elements needed to make it to Hollywood did as well, but its critical acclaim shows there are strong stories to be found.
The first Black Panther movie draws inspiration from across the African continent to create the fictional setting of Wakanda, and The Woman King does draw from a very real part of Benin’s history. More approaches like this should be taken by Hollywood, utilizing the superb stories created on the continent – especially prior to Colonialism. To help find success with future films like these, Hollywood perhaps shouldn’t pat itself on the back so much for putting African stores front-and-center or make that the center of the film’s promotion.
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