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Sisterhood and Slavery in “The Woman King”

Viola Davis’s new feature is a rousing tribute to the world’s only all-female army. But how true is the story it tells?

“The Woman King,” an exhilarating saga set on the battlefields of nineteenth-century West Africa, opens with a scene of liberation. Dahomey, a scrappy kingdom menaced by the slave trade, has dispatched its bravest soldiers to rescue a group of captive subjects, who are at risk of being sold to the rival Oyo Empire. Led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), an all-female unit of Agojie, or Amazons, strike the enemy outpost in the dead of night, rising from the tall grass with blades drawn. They quickly cut their opponents to pieces; Nanisca, in a cowrie-studded breastplate, slits the throat of a man who denies taking slaves. Victorious, they return to Dahomey, where grateful crowds meet them at the city gates. Civilians are forbidden to look upon the warriors, who are officially the king’s wives. But, when a little boy peeks, the coolly swaggering Izogie (Lashana Lynch) rewards him with a smile. You’d better believe it, she seems to be saying—a message equally directed at the audience.

Much of the hype around “The Woman King,” which premières Friday, has focussed on the obstacles to making it. The actor Maria Bello, who wrote the story with Dana Stevens, pitched the idea to Davis seven years ago, easily persuading the Hollywood titan to produce, champion, and star in the project. But studios balked at funding a feminist action movie rooted in African history, especially with dark-skinned actors in the lead roles. Then, in 2018, the astronomical success of “Black Panther” shifted the calculus, especially once fans learned that Wakanda’s Dora Milaje warriors were directly inspired by the Agojie. Sony’s TriStar Pictures tapped Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball”) to direct the fifty-million-dollar feature, which she’s compared with “Braveheart.” For her and her collaborators, the battle isn’t just for Dahomey’s freedom but the future of equity in cinema. “If you don’t come to see it, then you’re sending a message that Black women can’t lead the box-office globally,” Davis said, last week.

It’s about time for a major film on a kingdom like Dahomey. The modern world was shaped not only on the beaches of Normandy but also those of the so-called slave coast, where sophisticated states—not “warring tribes”—relentlessly vied for supremacy. Nowadays, their stories rarely see the outside of a university lecture hall. But “The Woman King” transforms them into spectacular entertainment, conjuring a Dahomey of bustling trade, vibrant fashion, and sprawling earthwork palaces, where young women in striped tunics drill with flintlock muskets. Rarely does an American film devote such meticulous attention to the lived reality of a non-Western culture, though, like the Agojie, we rarely see life beyond court. Instead, the world comes to the palace. Ghezo (John Boyega), the young monarch—all ease and virility in a spectrum of open-chested robes—underscores the film’s corrective agenda when a slave trader tries to speak to him in Portuguese. “You will speak our language,” he interrupts. (The language is Fon, played here by Boyega’s British-Nigerian English.)

But there is something rotten in the state of Dahomey. Despite being surrounded by veteran soldiers, fawning wives, saucy eunuchs, and a cabinet of advisers that includes the five-time-Grammy-winning Beninese legend Angélique Kidjo, Ghezo has been forced to pay a humiliating tribute of guns and captives to the Oyo. The empire’s leader, Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), and his turbanned baddies have seized the kingdom’s port, Ouidah, and aligned themselves with malevolent Western slave traffickers. Ghezo, too, sells enemy prisoners, but only because he must, of course, with heavy-hearted Jeffersonian reluctance. Nanisca lobbies against the trade, especially once she begins having ominous nightmares about a buried sexual trauma. The stage is set for a moral showdown: Will Ghezo cave to cowardly pragmatism or embrace the abolitionist awakening of his Agojie?

Into this gathering storm steps the feisty orphan Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who is given to the Agojie by her foster father when she refuses to marry. She meets her match on the training grounds of the women’s palace, where novices crawl through thornbushes and hack at dummies. “To be a warrior, you must kill your tears,” Nanisca warns the recruits. Yet the film’s strongest scenes emerge from moments of vulnerability, especially once the general and her star student form an intense bond. “You look like a regular old woman to me,” Nawi tells Nanisca as they steam in an underground bath. “Battle is a skill, not magic,” Nanisca shoots back. “We will see if you have any.” Davis, who gives a grave and impassioned performance—charismatically strained, as though she’s deadlifting the kingdom—lets down her guard in scenes with Amenza (Sheila Atim), her oldest friend, who uses divination to interpret the general’s dreams. In a genre where “badass woman” has often meant stale imitation of foulmouthed masculinity, the Agojie’s tender sisterhood in arms feels like a milestone.

When the Oyo seize Nawi, Nanisca abandons caution and leads the kingdom to war. From shock-and-awe gunpowder stratagems to a fierce duel between Nanisca and Oba Ade, the movie’s impressively choreographed (and convincingly human) melees don’t disappoint. Less can be said of the muddled casus belli, as Dahomey’s struggle for independence unpersuasively evolves into a proto-pan-African struggle for abolition. Much of the problem stems from the film’s disingenuous efforts to differentiate the warring parties while signalling fidelity to the historical record. Allusions are made to Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade, but we only ever see the Oyo’s, which we know is much worse largely because of Jimmy Odukoya’s bearded wickedness. Conveniently, the slave port of Ouidah—which Dahomey controlled from 1727 to 1892—is under Oyo rule in every scene where it appears. There, Ade conducts sinister negotiations with Europeans and even puts Agojie on the auction block. “Burn their whole trade to the ground,” Nanisca proclaims during a battle at the port. Theirs?

The film crosses the line from reasonable fiction into cynical distortion of history when Nanisca addresses the kingdom on the eve of an important counterattack. Prominently featured in teasers for the movie, her speech links Oyo’s oppression of Dahomey to the suffering of the enslaved in the Middle Passage:

When it rains, our ancestors weep for the pain we have felt in the dark hulls of ships bound for distant shores. When the wind blows, our ancestors push us to march into battle against those who would enslave us. . . . We fight not just for today but for the future. We are the spear of victory. We are the blade of freedom. We are Dahomey!

In 1928, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Africatown, Alabama, to interview one of the last living survivors of those dark-hulled ships. Oluale Kossola, an elderly church sexton known to his tight-knit community as Cudjoe Lewis, came from present-day Benin, where he’d been enslaved as a young man after a dawn ambush. The story of his capture, which sat in an archive until it was finally published in 2018 as “Barracoon,” is harrowing. Dahomean soldiers with French guns stormed Kossola’s village and beheaded its king, who had refused to pay them tribute. The most ruthless, Kossola remembered, were the Agojie. “No man kin be so strong lak de woman soldiers from de Dahomey,” he told Hurston, going on to describe their mutilation of the wounded. The trauma was so fresh even years on that he couldn’t finish the interview. “Kossola was no longer on the porch with me,” Hurston wrote. “He was squatting about that fire in Dahomey. His face was twitching in abysmal pain. It was a horror mask.”

“The Woman King” has been billed as a “powerful true story.” But one wonders what Kossola and Hurston—one of America’s first Black woman filmmakers—would make of its narrative. For one thing, Ghezo was not a reluctant participant in the slave trade. He fought hard to preserve it from the British, formerly his favorite customers, who blockaded the coast and unsuccessfully lobbied for abolition at his court. His defeat of Oyo led to an explosion in the number of slaves sold at Ouidah—a commerce that he zealously defended, once giving a British envoy a six-year-old girl as a gift for Queen Victoria. Nor do I know of any evidence that the Agojie ever resisted the trade. Some used their voices to clamor for war in the royal council, expressing on one occasion a preference for invading weaker neighbors: “If we fail to catch elephants, let us be content with flies.” The film’s conceit is, charitably, an elaborate exercise in wishful thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice if Dahomey’s brave women warriors had also been fighters for justice?

Defenders of white supremacy have often exploited these uncomfortable truths. Apologists for the slave trade once used Dahomey’s bloodthirsty reputation to claim that they were rescuing their victims from human sacrifice. (Hurston, too, was susceptible to these racist myths, though Kossola’s testimony has been corroborated by historians such as Sylviane A. Diouf.) Imperialists used similar rhetoric to justify colonial conquest as a form of abolition. In reality, though, African forms of slavery didn’t compare with the racialized industrial variants that Western empires unleashed upon the world. Dahomean captives could become junior family members or even Agojie. Here in the United States, by contrast, the enslaved were relegated to subhuman status for generations. Why, then, should “The Woman King” be held to a moral standard ignored by the thousands of period dramas about violent Western states?

It shouldn’t, of course. Dahomey’s complex history can no more be reduced to slave-raiding than England’s. As the historian Isaac Samuel has noted, the kingdom had many motivations, and one of its rulers was astonished when a European visitor assumed that “we go to war for the purpose of supplying your ships with slaves.” If the scriptwriters had wanted, “The Woman King” could have been an amoral epic about swordplay and statecraft, no more consumed by slavery than “The Great”—a Hulu series about Empress Catherine of Russia—is by serfdom. Or, if they wanted Agojie heroism, they could have turned to Dahomey’s courageous struggle against its French colonizers in 1892. (Then, of course, it wouldn’t have a happy ending.) But “The Woman King” chooses to make resistance to slavery its moral compass, then misrepresents a kingdom that trafficked tens of thousands as a vanguard in the struggle against it.

Some might argue that such liberties don’t matter, especially if they’re in service of empowering women, educating audiences, and enjoying the cast’s prowess in martial arts. But it’s no use elevating marginalized narratives if you’re going to mangle them. (Conservatives are already seizing on the film’s inconsistencies to delegitimize reckonings with the legacy of slavery as hypocritical.) The film’s miscarriage of history also diminishes its expressive potential. “White” period dramas are allowed antiheroes, ambiguity, and realpolitik. Somehow, though, when Black history is involved, the narrative shrinks to a didactic freedom fable.

Ironically, Dahomey’s rehabilitation is undercut by the demonization of Oyo, a fascinating society in its own right. Even action movies usually let the villain say something insightful (there’s a reason everyone loved Killmonger in “Black Panther”), but Oba Ade and his minions are consigned to the old cliché of bloodthirsty African slavers. The cringeworthy stereotyping continues when Nawi begins a romance with a chesty biracial himbo named Malik (Jordan Bolger), who visits the kingdom to fulfill his Dahomean mother’s dying wish. Their illicit flirtation is a sop to convention that distracts from far more interesting relations among the Agojie. Malik, who likely comes from Brazil, is also the movie’s rickety bridge across the diaspora, rescued from white brainwashing by Dahomean majesty. “My mother was a slave,” he tells Nawi. “That is all I ever knew of African people. I never knew we were kings.”

When I visited Benin in 2015—like Malik, as an intrepid mulatto heritage tourist—I, too, was impressed. But I was also disturbed by the conflation of celebrating Dahomey with mourning victims of the Middle Passage. On the Route des Esclaves in Ouidah, sculptures testifying to the suffering of the enslaved sit just down the road from monumental evocations of their traffickers’ glory. (A descendant of the Brazilian slave trader Franciso Félix de Souza, who helped Ghezo take power, is a prominent figure in the local tourism industry.) Many of the country’s commemorative sites were built in the early nineteen-nineties, when Benin, then emerging from a dictatorship, sought to stimulate the economy by attracting visitors from across the diaspora. More recently, the Beninese government unveiled a hundred-foot-tall statue of a warrior woman on the Esplanade des Amazones in Cotonou—possibly constructed by the North Korean firm Mansudae. It’s hard not to see uncomfortable echoes of this propaganda in “The Woman King.”

But you don’t have to take my word for it. In 2018, when TriStar announced “The Woman King,” Lupita Nyong’o had been cast as Nawi. Fresh off the success of “Black Panther,” the Kenyan-Mexican star was apparently so excited about her new role that she visited Benin to make a short documentary on the Agojie. Possibly intended to build hype for “The Woman King,” it also unravels the film’s heroic premise, as Nyong’o’s Beninese guides disillusion her about the Dahomean legacy. Nyong’o begins her journey enthusing about how “dope” it is to be in the land of the Amazons. But after a sobering encounter with Ghezo’s skull-mounted throne, she accepts that “any notion of the Agojie being a beacon of enlightened feminism, like the Dora Milaje in Wakanda, is long gone.” The emotional climax is an interview with the elderly granddaughter of a woman enslaved by the Amazons, who laments that she will never know her family in present-day Nigeria. “What the Agojie did was not good at all,” the old woman insists. “Not good at all!” As the woman sings a Yoruba melody, Nyong’o begins to cry, wondering aloud how she can reconcile celebrating the Agojie with the bereavement of their victims’ descendants.

Nyong’o never mentions “The Woman King.” But the documentary was filmed a few months after she was cast and not long before her departure was reported. The last scene finds her meditating on the limits of poetic license at Ouidah’s Gate of No Return, a waterfront memorial to those ‌whom the Dahomeans and their predecessors consigned to social death in the Americas. “The role of fantasy is to create the heroes we cannot have in the real world,” she says. “That’s why you have things like ‘Black Panther.’ ” Still, she goes on, “I think it’s also really important to be aware of the truth.” Nyong’o has given no public explanation for dropping out of “The Woman King.” But I suspect that she left precisely because of these reservations. If so, it is much to her credit that she refused to kill her tears. ♦

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