Updated: Apr 17
In the Western world, historical costume dramas have repeatedly tread familiar ground, predominantly retelling stories which find White European and American men on centre stage. This interest in mostly White histories has often been mirrored in the writings of historians to the degree that in those few, rare instances when the West has attempted to depict non-White histories we are faced with troubling displays such as 1956’s The Conqueror in which John Wayne depicts Genghis Khan as a frontiersman espousing suspiciously American values, a form of representation which does more harm than good.
It is with this context in mind that I viewed Sony Pictures’ recent film The Woman King starring Viola Davis. Set in the Kingdom of Dahomey in 1820 near modern day Benin, this depiction of an African colonial state bucks the trend of many previous filmic depictions, such as Zulu (1964), because it is interested in telling a story from the viewpoint of melanated people. Further, it’s depiction of the Agojie, an all-female military unit with significant political influence, makes the film one of very few portrayals of African women in Western film (let alone African women in positions of power). The members of the Agojie were often referred to by contemporary westerners as the “Dahomey Amazons,” an attempt to apply a Euro-centric conception of gender roles upon an African political reality which implied that the Agojie (and the society which produced it) was a sort of primitive curiosity, an ancient institution more at home in Greek myth than the modern world.
The Woman King’s state of Dahomey is refreshingly depicted as it historically was – a bureaucratic, complex society, which I suspect filmmakers of past decades would not have treated with nearly as much respect. Questions of honest (and humanizing) representation in media have sweeping implications for human rights law due to the influence of societal perceptions and prejudices on law, so this film’s portrayal of Dahomey as locked in a battle with external colonial powers presents us with a compelling and important representation of pre-modern African history, the likes of which rarely receive such attention, funding, and praise. As many critics are quick to point out, there is a clear link between The Woman King and films such as 2018’s Black Panther and 2020’s Beyoncé-directed and written Black is King. These two films are indicative of a larger cultural trend in the West in which African aesthetics and people are represented as fully-realized and proud. Critically, however, neither of these films claim to represent real, historical events, and so their storytelling need not be held to a rigorous standard where accuracy is concerned. Moreover, it is interesting to note that many reviews of the film, such as those in The Hollywood Reporter and RogerEbert.com, compare The Woman King favorably to grand (and Europe-focused) historical epics from the last few decades such as 1995’s Braveheart.
The Braveheart comparison, however, is uncomfortably appropriate here. Much as Mel Gibson’s depiction of William Wallace has been criticized for prioritizing action and drama at the expense of historical fact, The Woman Kingdeclines to fully confront a critical truth of Dahomey’s society: it’s enthusiastic participation in and reliance upon the slave trade. Over the course of the 18th-century (preceding the film’s 1820 setting) the scale of Dahomey slave raids was reduced, yet one estimate still identifies Dahmoey as providing 20% of the enslaved people in the Atlantic slave trade. I do not intend for this article to be an exhaustive look into the economic significance of the slave trade in Dahomey. Yet the film’s limited engagement with this subject comes in the form of scenes such as one which depicts the film’s lead suggesting expanding the trade of palm oil as an alternative to slavery.
This places me in a somewhat troubling position. Criticizing the film for this doesn’t feel like an expression of some minor historical pedantry, but a call for our depictions of history to come to terms with the ugliest aspects of the past. Although The Woman King sets an important precedent through its clearly insightful and respectful illustration of Dahomey, does criticizing it for what it doesn’t depict do more harm than good?
As a historian, and especially as a historian who advocates for human rights work, I tend to prioritize accurate representation of the past in all cases, even if it requires facing some unsettling truths in the process. I do wonder, however, if in this case an exception should be made. The Woman King sets a new standard and demands for complex, informed representation of an often ignored historical setting, but can we really agree with the Los Angeles Times’ statement that the film “makes Hollywood history with an incredible true story”? The idea of “truth” here is difficult to parse considering the value of this media lies in its entertainment, not rigorous historical accuracy.
The LA Times article above contains an interview with the director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and producer Cathy Schulman, which provides us with some insight into the historical research which went into the film’s writing and their approach to historical truth. Beginning with Prince-Bythewood:
“‘The biggest eye-opener was how much misinformation there is about these women and this culture given that so much of their history was written from the colonizer’s point of view. So it was really about separating the texts that were from that point of view, which were so disparaging and disrespectful, from the truth.’
‘You’re looking at a European colonialist describing a place they’re going to versus getting the story from the voices of the people themselves,’ said Schulman. ‘And so it was trying to read multiple sources and trying to find a like-minded perception of things.’”
This last statement from Schulman excellently captures why I am unsure of how to interpret The Woman King. History research is, ideally, a process through which a nuanced reading of sources produces conclusions and interpretations. Defining the search for a “like-minded perception of things” as the search for truth that the researchers for this film did their historical reading in reverse, concluding their specific interpretation of events before finding sources to support it. I should hasten to say that this is not necessarily a bad approach to historical research, but it is one which encourages omissions and distortion of facts. Perhaps it is most accurate to label the film as a selective retelling of events which still manages to provide for both entertainment and representation.
The mere fact that we are considering these challenges of representation is the greatest cultural contribution of The Woman King. Viola Davis herself said in an interview “noone has a lukewarm reaction to this movie” and that the passion which this film evokes in audiences regardless of their opinions on the matter is truly its greatest strength. This can be seen by vocal support on social media contrasted with the Twitter #boycottwomanking trending. My lasting hope is that Viola Davis’ later claim that The Woman King is “a movie that literally is going to shift the narrative for people of color” is intended as a call for the past to be fairly represented and for us all to engage more fully with discussions on how best to retell history. However, if filmmakers’ fear of trusting audiences with complex and uncomfortable truths lingers beyond The Woman King, we as viewers will need to push back so that the past, warts and all, is not forgotten.
Bay, E. 1998. Wives of the Leopard: Gender, Politics, and Culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Gyarkye, Lovia (September 9, 2022). "The Woman King Review: Viola Davis Transforms in Gina Prince-Bythewood's Rousing Action Epic". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved September 12, 2022.; Daniels, Robert (September 10, 2022). "The Woman King". RogerEbert.com. Retrieved September 14, 2022.
ITV News. “Viola Davis Defends the Woman King after Slave Trade History Backlash.” ITV News. ITV News, October 3, 2022. https://www.itv.com/news/2022-10-03/viola-davis-defends-the-woman-king-over-slave-trade-history-backlash.
Kelley, Sonaiya (August 31, 2022). "How The Woman King makes Hollywood history with an incredible true story". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 9, 2022.
Law, R. 1991. The Slave Coast of West Africa, 1550–1750: The Impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on an African Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Manning, P. 1982. Slavery, Colonialism, and Economic Growth in Dahomey, 1640–1960. New York: Cambridge University Press
Mhaka, Tafi. “The Woman King: The Truth about Slavery Matters.” Arts and Culture | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, October 10, 2022. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/10/7/the-woman-king-the-truth-about-slavery-matters.
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Monroe, J. C. 2014. The Precolonial State in West Africa: Building Power in Dahomey. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Monroe, J. C. 2007. “Continuity, Revolution, or Evolution on the Slave Coast of West Africa: Royal Architecture and Political Order in Precolonial Dahomey.” Journal of African History, 48: 349–373