‘The Woman King’ Takes Some Historical Liberties

Name a Hollywood history that doesn’t

The Woman King is a throwback to the sweeping historical epics of the ’90s, with a twist: Its heroes are all Black women. It stars Viola Davis as the leader of an all-female army, the Agojie, in the West African kingdom of Dahomey. The Agojie are reportedly the inspiration for the Dora Milaje in Black Panther, and the only known army of their kind in modern history.

Davis is spectacular in the lead, ferocious and muscular and world-weary as General Nanisca, who teaches her female soldiers to be impervious to pain– and that it’s better to cut your own throat than become a captive. True to its genre, director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s (The Old Guard) film is heavy on stirring battle scenes, leavened with somewhat cheesy dialogue, soaring soundtracks and a smattering of lust. Producer and story creator Maria Bello summed it up in the Hollywood Reporter: “I was watching Braveheart and I was like, Why isn’t there a woman’s movie like this?” Agreed!

Alongside Davis, Lashana Lynch (No Time to Die) and Sheila Atim (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) are fierce and charismatic as Nanisca’s right-hand women, while Thuso Mbedu plays newcomer Nawi, conscripted into the army after she refuses to marry a man who hits her. The plot centers on Dahomey’s conflict with the neighboring Oyo Empire, from whom the Agojie rescue captives in the film’s first battle scene, setting off a spiraling power struggle. John Boyega co-stars as the youngish King Ghezo, who’s got a harem of wives and a strong interest in expanding his kingdom’s financial prowess, partly by continuing to sell captives into the European slave trade.

It’s got many of the trappings of a traditional action movie, but one of the really interesting things about The Woman King is its depiction of violence and trauma. Under Prince-Bythewood’s direction, fight scenes are violent but not wildly gory. Naniska’s flashbacks to captivity, which included rape, focus mostly on her agonized face rather than gratuitous sexual assault scenes.

The Woman King isn’t perfect. Its romance, between Nawi and a biracial Portugese slaver (John Bolger) who has a convenient change of heart, is sweet but implausible; the relationship between Nawi and Nanisca turns on a soap-operatic plot device, but one that allows Davis a heartwrenching monologue. In other words, it’s a big-budget Hollywood release with its eye on commercial success.

So can a Black woman make a historical epic without having to navigate a million hurdles that didn’t exist for countless other biopics and historical narratives? #BoycottTheWomanKing is trending, because of course it is.

Will it shock you to learn that The National Review is deeply concerned that The Woman King isn’t being completely accurate? They’re not the only ones, though: on Slate, historian Ana Lucia Araujo points out the film’s factual shortcomings (and mentions that Werner Herzog also depicted the Agojie in his 1987 movie Cobra Verde, which centers on a white slaver).

To these complaints, and others on Twitter, I say: Please show me the mainstream Hollywood epic that doesn’t play fast and loosewith the facts. Name me a biopic that lionizes a Great Man from decades past, and I’ll find you some shady behavior conveniently left out of the narrative.

And the thing is, a lot of depictions of what The Woman King is doing also aren’t accurate. The film shows Davis’s character throughout as a champion of abolishing the practice of selling captives; she tries to convince King Ghezo of this, with limited success. He’s reluctant and vague, and even at the end gives a somewhat unconvincing speech about the kingdom’s commitment to ending the slave trade.

Producer Cathy Schulman has said the film doesn’t look away from Dahomey’s involvement in the slave trade. “The fact is that slavery is driven by material gain. It offered up people on this continent an option to make money that should not have been offered up or forced upon them. And, once it was, it created all sorts of internal conflict, and we don’t hesitate in visiting that within the film.”

Is the scene in which the Agojie free some of their captive members at a slave auction, taking down the white colonialists in the marketplace, historically accurate? I doubt it, but it’s thrilling all the same. Davis has spoken about the difficult of getting this movie made because of its insistence on casting dark-skinned actresses in its leading roles, and its commitment to showing them in command. “The part of the movie that we love is also the part of the movie that is terrifying to Hollywood, which is, it’s different, it’s new… All of these women are dark. And they’re beating the shit out of men. So there you go.”

Once historical accuracy becomes something we demand from all of our biopics, sure, let’s have the conversation about factual corner-cutting in The Woman King. Right after we have it about Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, The Untouchables, Goodfellas, Pearl Harbor, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Walk the Line, Titanic, A Beautiful Mind, Argo, The Patriot, 300, Pocahontas, The Blind Side, Captain Phillips, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Green Book. Just for starters.

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Sara Stewart

Sara Stewart is a film critic and a culture and entertainment writer whose work is featured in the New York Post, CNN.com, and more. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Sara's work can be fully appreciated at sarastewart.org. But not on Twitter, because she’s been troll-free since 2018.

2 thoughts on “‘The Woman King’ Takes Some Historical Liberties

  • September 18, 2022 at 4:12 pm
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    So what?

    Yeah I guess it’s no big deal that this tribe enslaved and sold courtliness Africans into the slave trade. No big.

    But hooray! Woman power!

    Reply
  • September 18, 2022 at 9:26 pm
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    I agree. I don’t oppose the existance of the movie. Artistic freedom is paramount.
    But today a film idealizing the Confederacy would not be made by Hollywood, we should point to that.

    Reply

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