The Woman King is an exciting narrative that begins with a scene of freedom and is set on the battlefields of nineteenth-century West Africa. Dahomey, a resilient monarchy threatened by the slave trade, has sent some of its bravest soldiers to save its captured inhabitants who could be sold to the Oyo Empire, a rival. An all-female force of Agojie, or Amazons, led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), attack the enemy position in the dead of night by emerging from the tall grass with blades drawn. They swiftly dispatched their foes; Nanisca hacked the throat of a man who denied using slaves while wearing a breastplate studded with cowrie. After their victory, they make their way back to Dahomey, where adoring throngs welcome them at the gates. The warriors, who are actually the king’s wives, are off-limits to the general public. But when a young boy peeks, Izogie (Lashana Lynch), with her cool swagger, smiles at him. She seems to be conveying a message that is equally directed at the audience, so you better believe it.
The Woman King, which premieres on Friday, has received a lot of attention in the media due to its difficult road to success. Seven years ago, Maria Bello, an actor, and Dana Stevens, who co-wrote the script, presented the concept to Davis, who quickly agreed to produce, support, and star in the film. Studios, however, refused to support a feminist action film with African history at its core, especially when dark-skinned performers played the key parts. Then, in 2018, the phenomenal success of Black Panther changed the equation, particularly after fans discovered that the warriors of the Wakandas Dora Milaje were directly influenced by the Agojie. Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, TriStar Pictures, Sony) was chosen to helm the $50 million film, which has been compared to Braveheart. The struggle for her and her allies is not just for the freedom of Dahomey, but also for the future of equity in the film industry. If you choose not to attend, you are demonstrating that Black women cannot dominate the worldwide box office. A week ago, Davis said.
A major motion picture depicting a country like Dahomey is long overdue. Not just the beaches of Normandy, but also those of the so-called slave coast, where advanced states—rather than fighting tribes—constantly fought for dominance, helped to shape the modern world. These days, their stories hardly ever leave a college lecture hall. However, The Woman King turns them into breathtaking entertainment by creating a Dahomey of thriving commerce, colorful dress, and expansive earthwork castles where young girls in striped tunics practice firing flintlock muskets. The lived reality of a non-Western culture is rarely given such scrupulous detail in an American film, even though, like the Agojie, we rarely witness life outside of court. The world instead comes to the palace. When a slave dealer attempts to speak to Ghezo (John Boyega), the young monarch, in a variety of open-chested garments, with ease and virility, the film’s corrective mission is underscored. He interjects, “You shall speak our language. (Boyegas British-Nigerian English is playing the Fon language in this instance.)
However, there is a problem in the state of Dahomey. Ghezo has been made to give the Oyo a humiliating tribute of guns and hostages despite being surrounded by veteran soldiers, adoring wives, sassy eunuchs, and a cabinet of advisers that includes the five-time Grammy Award-winning Beninese icon Anglique Kidjo. Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), the ruler of the empire, and his turbaned henchmen had taken control of Ouidah, the port of the country, and joined forces with evil Western slave traders. Even Ghezo buys enemy prisoners, but only out of necessity and with heinous Jeffersonian reluctance. When Nanisca starts having terrifying nightmares regarding a hidden sexual trauma, she becomes more vocal about her opposition to the trade. A moral struggle is about to break out: Will Ghezo submit to timid pragmatism or support his Agojie’s abolitionist awakening?
The tenacious orphan Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who is sent to the Agojie by her foster father when she refuses to get married, enters this growing maelstrom. She encounters her match at the women’s palace’s training grounds, where newcomers prowl through thornbushes and attack dummies. Nanisca cautions the recruits that in order to be a warrior, you must kill your tears. However, the film’s most powerful passages come from vulnerable moments, particularly after the general and her star student develop close bonds. As they steam in an underground bath, Nawi says to Nanisca, “You look like a real old woman to me.” Nanisca counters that fighting is a skill, not a magic. We’ll check to see if you do. In moments with Amenza (Sheila Atim), her oldest friend who employs divination to interpret the general’s dreams, Davis, who gives a somber and passionate performance, seems to be deadlifting the kingdomlets down her guard. The Agojies’ delicate sisterhood in arms feels like a turning point in a genre where fierce woman has frequently meant boring mimicry of foulmouthed machismo.
Nanisca abandons caution and leads the kingdom to war when the Oyo capture Nawi. The movie’s impressively choreographed (and convincingly human) melees don’t let you down, from shock-and-awe gunpowder strategies to a brutal combat between Nanisca and Oba Ade. Less can be said for the convoluted casus belli, as Dahomey’s independence movement unconvincingly develops into a proto-pan-African abolitionist struggle. The film’s dishonest attempts to portray authenticity to the historical record while differentiating the warring parties are mostly to blame for the issue. There are references to Dahomey’s involvement in the slave trade, but we never see them because Jimmy Odukoya’s bearded depravity makes us aware that the Oyos are much worse. Conveniently, Dahomey owned the slave port of Ouidah from 1727 to 1892, and it is now governed by the Oyo in each scene where it appears. Ade engages in nefarious negotiations with Europeans there and even puts Agojie up for auction. During a skirmish at the dock, Nanisca declares, “Burn their entire trade to the ground.” Theirs?
When Nanisca addresses the kingdom just before a crucial counterattack, the movie crosses the line from plausible fiction into cynical historical falsification. Her statement, which is prominently displayed in the movie’s trailers, connects Oyos’ tyranny of Dahomey to the misery of the slaves during the Middle Passage:
When it rains, our forefathers cry out in agony for the suffering we have endured while traveling to far-off beaches aboard black ships. Our forebears encouraged us to march into battle against those who wanted to enslave us when the wind blew. We fight for the future as much as for now. We are the victory’s spear. We are the freedom’s cutting edge. We are from Dahomey.
Zora Neale Hurston visited Africatown, Alabama, in 1928 to speak with one of the last surviving crew members of those ships with dark hulls. Oluale Kossola, an older church sexton known as Cudjoe Lewis in his small but close-knit community, was from modern-day Benin and had been sold into slavery there as a young man following a dawn ambush. The account of his capture, which was kept in an archive before being released as Barracoon in 2018, is terrifying. The ruler of Kossolas was beheaded after Dahomean soldiers with French firearms invaded the settlement and demanded tribute from him. Kossola recalled that the Agojie were the cruelest. He continued to detail the Dahomeyan woman troops’ mutilation of the injured, telling Hurston that no man could be as strong as them. Even years later, the trauma was still so fresh that he was unable to complete the interview. Hurston noted that Kossola was no longer beside me on the porch. He was camped up near the Dahomey fire. His face twitched in excruciating pain. It was a mask of horror.
It has been touted as a potent true narrative, The Woman King. However, one wonders what the story would have meant to Kossola and Hurston, two of America’s first Black female filmmakers. Ghezo was not a reluctant participant in the slave trade, to start with. He put up a valiant fight to defend it from the British, who were once his favorite clients and blockaded the coast while trying to convince him to abolish slavery at his court. He fiercely promoted Ouidaha commerce after his victory over Oyo, and once sent a British ambassador a six-year-old girl as a gift for Queen Victoria. This led to an upsurge in the number of slaves sold there. I’m also not aware of any proof that the Agojie have ever protested the trade. In the royal council, some raised their voices in support of war, one stating that they would rather invade their weaker neighbors than capture elephants: “If we fail to collect elephants, let us be pleased with flies.” Don’t you think it would have been lovely if Dahomey’s heroic women warriors had also been justice-seekers? That is, after all, the film’s central idea.
These unsettling facts have frequently been used as an excuse by white supremacist defenders. Once, proponents of the slave trade asserted that they were sparing their victims from being sacrificed as humans by citing Dahomey’s murderous reputation. (Hurston, too, was prone to similar racist stereotypes, despite the fact that Sylviane A. Diouf and others have backed Kossola’s evidence.) Similar arguments were made by imperialists to defend colonial conquest as a type of abolition. The racialized industrial forms of slavery that Western empires unleashed on the world, however, were far worse than the forms of slavery practiced in Africa. Dahomean captives could end up as young relatives or even Agojie. In contrast, the enslaved were dehumanized for generations here in the United States. Therefore, why should The Woman King be held to a moral standard that the countless historical dramas about bloody Western powers ignore?
Of course, it shouldn’t. No more than England’s complex history can Dahomey’s be boiled down to slavery. The kingdom, according to the historian Isaac Samuel, had numerous goals, and one of its kings was shocked when a European visitor thought that we go to fight so that we might supply your ships with slaves. The Woman King could have been an immoral epic about swordplay and diplomacy, unaffected by enslavement in the same way that The Greata Hulu series on Empress Catherine of Russia is unaffected by serfdom. Or they could have looked to Dahomey’s valiant resistance against its French conquerors in 1892 if they desired Agojie heroism. Naturally, it wouldn’t have a happy ending if that happened. But The Woman King decides to make the fight against slavery its moral compass, then portrays a country that trafficked tens of thousands of people as a leader in the fight.
Some could contend that such liberties are unimportant, particularly if they serve to educate viewers, empower women, and showcase the martial arts expertise of the actors. But if you’re going to misrepresent disadvantaged narratives, there’s no use in raising them. (Conservatives are already using the film’s discrepancies to call into question the sincerity of efforts to address the legacy of slavery.) The movie’s historical misrepresentation reduces its capacity for expression. Realpolitik, ambiguity, and antiheroes are acceptable in white historical dramas. However, when Black history is mentioned, the story somehow becomes a didactic parable about liberation.
Ironically, the demonization of Oyo, a fascinating community in its own right, undermines Dahomey’s rehabilitation. Oba Ade and his minions are relegated to the tired trope of murderous African slavers, but even action movies typically allow the villain to say something smart (there’s a reason everyone adored Killmonger in Black Panther). When Nawi starts dating Malik, a chesty biracial himbo (Jordan Bolger), who comes to the kingdom to fulfill his Dahomean mother’s last request, the offensive stereotyping continues. Their shady flirting is a concession to tradition that takes attention away from the Agojie’s more intriguing interpersonal relationships. Malik, who is probably Brazilian, serves as the film’s flimsy bridge across the diaspora and is saved from white supremacy by Dahomean magnificence. He admits to Nawi that his mother was a slave. That was all I had ever known about Africans. I was unaware that we were rulers.
Like Malik, I was impressed during my 2015 trip to Benin as an adventurous mulatto cultural traveler. But I was also troubled by the association between Dahomey’s celebration and the Middle Passage victims’ grief. In Ouidah, sculptures depicting the agony of the enslaved are situated close to gigantic depictions of the glory of their traffickers on the Route des Esclaves. (A key role in the local tourism sector is a grandson of the Brazilian slave trader Franciso Flix de Souza, who assisted Ghezo in seizing power.) Many of the nation’s memorials were constructed in the early 1990s, when Benin, which was then emerging from a dictatorship, attempted to boost the economy by luring tourists from all over the world. More recently, the Beninese government presented a statue of a warrior woman standing 100 feet tall on the Esplanade des Amazones in Cotonou, which was possibly built by the North Korean company Mansudae. It’s difficult to avoid noticing unsettling echoes of this propaganda in The Woman King.
You are not have to believe me, though. Lupita Nyongo was Nawi when TriStar revealed The Woman King in 2018. The Kenyan-Mexican actress, who just enjoyed success with Black Panther, reportedly became so enthused about her new part that she traveled to Benin to film a brief documentary on the Agojie. It may have been created to generate excitement for The Woman King, but it also undermines the film’s heroism as Nyongo’s Beninese mentors lead her astray on the Dahomean legacy. Nyongo starts out on her tour gushing about how awesome it is to be in the Amazonian region. But after a sobering encounter with Ghezo’s throne with a skull on top, she realizes that any idea that the Agojie once served as a model for progressive women, like the Dora Milaje in Wakanda, has long since vanished. The interview with the elderly granddaughter of a lady who was sold into slavery by the Amazons, who laments that she will never meet her relatives in modern-day Nigeria, serves as the film’s heartbreaking denouement. The elderly woman maintains that what the Agojie did was not at all good. Not at all good! Nyongo breaks down in tears as the woman performs a Yoruba song, asking aloud how she can balance honoring the Agojie with the loss of the ancestors of their victims.
The Woman King is never mentioned by Nyongo. However, the documentary was shot not long after she was cast and before news of her departure broke. At Ouidahs Gate of No Return, a waterfront tribute to those whom the Dahomeans and their ancestors condemned to social death in the Americas, she is shown reflecting on the boundaries of poetic license in the last scene. According to her, the purpose of fantasy is to create the heroes that are impossible to find in reality. You have things like Black Panther for this reason. She continues, “But I think it’s also extremely vital to know the truth.” Nyongo has not provided a public justification for leaving The Woman King. But I have a suspicion that she departed due to these reservations. If so, she did a really admirable thing by not suppressing her tears.