by Bryan & Heather
You’d be forgiven for thinking you had accidentally queued up a Marvel movie: impossibly athletic black women clad in gold and scarlet twirl spears and fight circles around their people’s oppressors. This is not Wakanda, however, but 1820s Dahomey, setting of the 2022 film The Woman King. Intrigued by the all-too-rare occurrence of an historical epic set in sub-Saharan Africa and focusing on a cast of almost exclusively black characters, we eagerly dove into a movie that proved both historically cathartic and historically problematic.
The Woman King tells the story of General Nanisca (Viola Davis), head of the Kingdom of Dahomey’s elite all-women agojie, known to Europeans as the “Dahomey Amazons,” as she attempts to protect her people from the internal and external depredations of the Atlantic Slave Trade. As she attempts to convince her young King Gheza (John Boyega) to abandon the trade entirely and re-tool Dahomey’s economy to focus on selling palm oil, Nanisca must also deal with an impetuous young agojie recruit that seems hell-bent on testing the limits of the unit’s patience and, ultimately, will force Nanisca to confront her own past as a former captive.
For all the depth of its personal story, however, The Woman King shines most as a visual spectacle. Its material culture, especially in its depiction of Dahomey’s capital city and palace grounds, is stunning, and its costuming is equally exquisite. Each action sequence, from its opening scene to its closing assault, is great fun to watch–even if it can get a little too modern and stylized for its historical setting at times. One can largely look past that, however, as you enjoy watching these badass black women carry all before them and exact justice for centuries of African suffering.
Here, however, we run into the ugly realities of history. As controversies surrounding the film at its release correctly pointed out, the story of Dahomey is not nearly so neat and feel-good as The Woman King would have you believe. Rather than ending the slave trade in its entirety and switching over to palm oil production, the historical King Gheza only ended the sale of his own people into slavery; he and his agojie were only too willing to conduct almost constant raids into surrounding lands to take prisoners to be sold to the Europeans. In fact, when confronted by the British in the 1830s to end the trade, Gheza refused, saying it was too central to the region’s economy (though tepidly committing to slowly phasing it out in favor of palm oil over decades). While some went so far as to call for boycotts of the film over this elision of inconvenient historical accuracy, we personally did not have too much of a problem with it. Every period piece takes some kind of liberties with its subject matter, and the modern need to see heroes in the African past just as much as in the European is as good a reason as any to do so–as long as the myth of a united African nationalism before the 20th century does not enter serious academic discussion. If Gladiator can restore the Roman Republic in the second century AD, in other words, The Woman King can certainly kill some slavers.
Epic yet surprisingly intimate, The Woman King proved well worth our time and, in the final accounting, a net positive for its representation of such underserved history. While it can become unfocused at times as it flashes back and forth between its admittedly bloated cast of characters, its devotion to the vibrancy of its era more than makes up for it. Dahomey as depicted may not be exactly accurate, but then again, it’s more real than Wakanda.