“The Woman King” is entertaining but historically debatable

Omoleye Omoruyi
Set in 1823 in the former African kingdom of Dahomey (located within present-day Benin), “The Woman King” features the nation’s female warriors called Agojie…
The Woman King

With all the bias in our veins…Okay, before we go on, this review of “The Woman King” includes spoilers but will surely encourage you to go see it, so you learn of the dramatic portrayal of the Dahomey people who, led by a woman, fought to stop oppression and what was a thriving slave trade in the 1800s.

Movie: "The Woman King"
Year: 2022
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Producers: Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, Maria Bello, Cathy Schulman
Screenplay: Dana Stevens
Run time: 135 minutes

As we wanted to say earlier, “The Woman King” is no doubt one of the year’s standout films and will surely compete for many awards to come. For Viola Davis, talking to Essence, “The Woman King”, in many instances, has significance stretching across her career and many generations of struggle, and it is a lot more than box office numbers.

“There are no words to describe the journey, the sweat, the blood the war, that is being a Black artist and being a Black female artist,” she said.

Nanisca (Viola Davis)

“If people understood what goes on in the room, what goes on in the studio, what goes on in a heart, what freaking dies in us at times…If they see the blood, sweat and tears of what it took, not just for this movie, just what our journey is. Then they would be on board. They would be on board because they would understand the absolute importance of it.”

Besides that sad part of history, historical spectacles usually fare well at the box office, especially ones that bring up emotions and cause conversations on colonialism (more like the sinister entry of white men into Africa and the rule that came after), the history of the slave trade, and the history of old-time kingdoms. But, there’s nothing like perfection.

Shall we?

Set in 1823 in the former African kingdom of Dahomey (located within present-day Benin), “The Woman King” features the nation’s female warriors called Agojie, and its fierce commander, Nanisca (Viola Davis).

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The film begins with a bloody scene: A group of men camping in a field. They hear rustling in the tallgrass. Suddenly Nanisca – the fierce general – is up, and an entire platoon shows up behind her, charging and slaughtering the men – women excluded – and is part of Nanisca’s mission to free their imprisoned kin.

However, Nanisca loses so many soldiers that she decides to train a new batch of recruits. 

The Woman King
Nanisca leading a charge in “The Woman King”

After that scene, the plot begins to feel convoluted. But, even that serves the film’s goals.

What comes next is the offering of a ‘delinquent’ teenager, Nawi, (Thuso Mbedu) to King Ghezo (John Boyega) by her domineering father, who is frustrated by his daughter’s refusal to bow and be married to one of her suitors.

In a twist, Nawi does not get to the king and is instead picked up by an Agojie warrior, Izogie (Lashana Lynch), who sees Nawi‘s misdemeanour as a strength and enlists her in Nanisca‘s training.

Indeed, being part of the Agojie is a channel to freedom, especially for many girls like Nawi, but the story is different for those who are part of the conquered, as they are offered as tribute to the draconian Oyo Empire, who trades them as slaves to Europeans in exchange for guns.

Nanisca wants to break that circle of oppression. And she says, “If you want to hold a people in chains, you have to first convince them that they are meant to be bound,” to support this.

But, before that, a dream has haunted the leader of the Agojie, and the disobedient Nawi, the one who would not obey simple rules, especially the ‘No Men’ requirement of the amazons, might be the key to what ails her.

Nawi, though a supporting character, eventually becomes one to stand beside Nanisca when she matches into the kingdom, having defeated both the Oyo empire and Europeans who were slavers.

The Woman King’s presentation of the slave trade

When we talk about slavery, we usually focus on how Europeans matched into Africa and stole human beings to the Americas, raped them, erased their cultures and subjugated (still) them to deplorable conditions for generations.

What is usually not in the conversation is how it was easy for Europeans to get those slaves.

“The Woman King” tells this part of history; especially how the Oyo Empire sold fellow Africans to the Europeans for guns, which gave them more power to conquer other tribes and continue the cycle of oppression and the slave trade.

It is true that Dahomey played a big part in the transatlantic slave trade.

But this is not to say that all in black skin relished the idea of seeing their kin put in chains and shipped across the Atlantic. This is why we see Nanisca fighting against the idea of taking on slaves and selling same.

There is war, but not as violent

You may not see as much blood as you saw watching “300”. But, you will see knife and bullet wounds, blood and an attempt at bombs. And the fighting scenes are well choreographed for a story from that era.

However, not showing the brutality of war, beyond flashbacks of a rape scene involving young Nanisca, undercuts the threat Nanisca constantly presents. It also undercuts the joy that comes with the death of characters the audience comes to hate.

The feminist reference

Thanks to a central figure, Nawi, we are led on a journey of transformation and the strength of a woman in a place of hostility.

Nawi, Izogie, Amenza - Agojie warriors in The Woman King
Nawi, Izogie, Amenza – Agojie warriors in The Woman King

Nawi, after winning the battle of an arranged marriage against her father, goes on to become a star in training and earns the respect of the senior Agojie warriors.

She narrowly escapes being sold as a slave, her saving grace being unrelenting Nanisca, who defies King Ghezo‘s order and is ready to raze a commerce centre populated by Europeans to save her. Before then, she is saved by Malik (Jordan Bolger) – whose mother was from Dahomey.

However, Dahomey is not exactly the homeland of feminists, as women do not hold all the cards of power. You will see that the Agojie warriors exist within a patriarchal system. Besides, the men are portrayed as willing to sell the women at every opportunity.

Interestingly, the fight scenes will tell of the skill and bravery of the Agojie, but the “bloodiest bitches in Africa,” as described in the film, are still warriors whose bodies are expendable and act in service to King and empire.

“The Woman King” against history

The basic framework of the story is inspired by true events, but it is heavily fictionalised and dramatised.  

The real Ghezo is known to have successfully freed Dahomey from its tributary status in 1823. But the kingdom’s involvement in the slave trade doesn’t align with historical records. In fact, Ghezo only agreed to end Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade in 1852 after years of pressure from the British government, which abolished slavery in its own colonies in 1833.

Though Ghezo explored palm oil production as an alternative source of revenue, it was not as lucrative, so the king soon resumed Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade.

The characters are mostly works of fiction too. Nanisca in particular was created for the movie, as was Nawi.

Watch or ignore?

Apart from the fact that it tried to juxtapose history with the contemporary ideas of women’s roles and take away part of the real story, what are you waiting for?

You will enjoy a better attempt at cinematography than many African movies and may be forced to learn more about the people of Dahomey.

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