The Woman King’s Historical Lies: Why They Matter
The true history behind the story of the 2022 film The Woman King — as well as the film’s failure to confront that history — are equal parts disturbing and important.
The Woman King is a film that wants you to think its plot is historical. The film’s trailer declares that it is based on a “powerful true story,” while the film’s director, Gina Prince-Bythewood has vigorously defended the film’s accuracy. In an interview with the L.A. Times, she went as far as to claim that critics of the film’s myriad historical discrepancies are “doing the work of the oppressor.” She claims that the film is based on Dahomean history as told by Africans, while her critics are uncritically parroting eurocentric histories. Prince-Bythewood’s fierce defense of the film’s accuracy is ironic on multiple fronts, most obviously in that the film’s strongest defenders disagree with her. From such highbrow sources as respected film reviewers, to the comments of lay people on Reddit, few fans of the movie actually defend the film as an authentic depiction of history. Historical researcher Isaac Samuel, for example, strongly denounced my criticism of the film, but himself acknowledges that the film’s treatment of history is riddled with issues. Meanwhile, even critics who generally endorsed the film often highlighted its historical inconsistencies. In a generally positive review, writer Tara Bennet noted how “the nuances of ancient tribe dynamics are whittled down to the super basic” within The Woman King’s retelling of history. In perhaps the best encapsulation of how the majority of the critical community viewed the film, Alexis Potter of the Arizona Republic entitled her review of the film “The Woman King isn’t historically accurate. Here’s why it’s still worth watching.” Even the film’s leading star Viola Davis is willing to acknowledge that the film is primarily fictionalized. It seems that Prince-Bythewood and The Woman King’s marketing crew are the only people stubbornly insisting that the film is an accurate representation of history.
For that reason, there would be no point in writing an article admonishing the film’s myriad historical inaccuracies, because that is ultimately not the central issue with the film. There are many issues that the film struggles with beyond those mentioned here, such as blatantly Marvel-ized costume design, underutilization of firearms, everything about its depiction of Oyo, its struggles with the Fongbe language, and other inaccuracies that, honestly, don’t matter. The problem with The Woman King is its intentional and egregious attempts to sanitize the history of Dahomey, especially the kingdom’s relationship to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and slavery more generally. The film had the potential to become a landmark moment in depictions of African history. It could have been a film that acknowledged the tragic nature of West African participation in the slave trade while simultaneously demonstrating that the world’s second-largest continent has historical narratives to offer outside of the elephant of slavery. Instead, the film leaned into a narrative which whitewashes Dahomean involvement in the slave trade and, through its dishonest support of several myths surrounding the trade, exacerbates the wedge between Africans and the diaspora.
The film is set in the year 1823 in the Kingdom of Dahomey, located in the modern-day Republic of Benin. To people knowledgeable of the Dahomean history, setting a film in that year immediately stands out as an odd choice. 1823 was the fifth year of the rule of Ghezo, one of the most famous and infamous kings to ever rule Dahomey. His depiction in the film is infinitely more charitable than his real life counterpart deserves. In the first act of the film, Ghezo (played by John Boyega) is depicted as a ruler who is reluctantly participating in the slave trade. While he wants to move on from the trade, he struggles to see a viable economic alternative. However, after Nanisca (portrayed by Viola Davis) shows him a productive palm oil plantation, Ghezo immediately abandons his reluctance and decides he will transition away from slave trading. In his next encounter with a foreign slave merchant, Ghezo chastises the slaver for his business of “selling Africans,” implying that he finds the slave trade to be morally reprehensible. By the end of the film Ghezo’s arc has come full circle and declares an end to Dahomey’s participation in slave trading.
The real Ghezo was, in many ways, the exact opposite of his onscreen depiction. While Boyega’s Ghezo is a reluctant participant in the slave trade who terminates his role therein at the first opportunity, Ghezo in reality would have likely never ruled at all if not for his enthusiastic desire to expand the slave trade. The unusual process of Ghezo’s ascendancy to power is entirely unmentioned in the film, and, when you consider the filmmaker’s desire to depict him positively, it’s easy to see why.
Despite the claims of know-nothings like Larry Elder — who called Dahomey a “bloodthirsty society bent on conquest” — the argument that Dahomey was an especially prolific slave trading state has declined in recent years. Despite the kingdom’s reputation, Dahomey oversaw an enormous decline in slave trading from its principal port, Ouidah, throughout the 18th and early 19th century. In fact, Ghezo’s elder brother, Adandozan, actively sought to limit and divest from the slave trade due to concerns over the industry’s decline. This policy enraged a portion of Dahomean elites, especially those whose fortunes relied on the continuation of the slave trade. The figurehead of this opposition was Ghezo himself. With the aid of slave trading elites, Ghezo overthrew Adandozan. As you might expect, Ghezo’s rule saw the only prolonged success in reviving the slave trade in Dahomean history. From 1810 to 20, a little over 5,300 people were enslaved and exported from Ouidah. This number more than doubled, exceeding 10,800 slaves traded from 1820 to 30, and over 11,600 between 1830 and 40. The increase in slave trading in Dahomey occurred simultaneously with a general decline in slave trading in Western and Central Africa, and reversed a century’s long downward trend of the institution in Ouidah.
Ghezo did eventually oversee a de-escalation of slave trading in his later rule. Specifically, in 1843 — 20 years after the events portrayed in The Woman King — Ghezo instituted a series of reforms aimed at growing the palm trade, including permission for planters to pay taxes in palm oil, as well as the prohibition of cutting palm trees. If anything, though, it was the decision to move away from the slave trade which Ghezo took reluctantly. Despite facing intense pressure from factions within the Dahomean bureaucracy, as well as external pressure from an effective British blockade, Ghezo still steadfastly clung to supporting efforts to increase slave trading. Even after the 1843 reforms, Dahomean participation in the slave trade remained more abundant than prior to Ghezo’s rule. Rather than making a full transition to the palm oil trade, many of the largest palm oil traders in Dahomey continued exporting enslaved people as a major source of supplemental income. The film does not engage in this reality, instead ending the film with Ghezo abolishing his kingdom’s participation in slave trading, an aggressively ahistorical proclamation.
While the film’s positive framing of Ghezo certainly raises some eyebrows, the most reprehensible element of the film is the way that it treats people enslaved by Dahomey. In the two hours and fifteen minutes of runtime, there is exactly scene which depicts Dahomean involvement in the slave trade. In this scene, the Agojie, Dahomean female soldiers, rescue a group of Fon women who have been kidnapped and enslaved by the Mahi people. In retaliation, the Agojie bring the surviving Mahi men to the Dahomean capital in chains, with the implication being that they will soon be sold into slavery. This scene is the sole representation in the film of Agojie enslaving anybody. Later in the film, we see multiple scenes of the Agojie freeing enslaved people, discussing their distaste for the slave trade, or otherwise speaking of the trade in a negative manner. Whether this was the intention of the filmmakers or not, the movie clearly frames Dahomean slavery in a sympathetic light. In the film’s narrative, Dahomey only reluctantly enslaved people who “deserved it”, in this case people who had enslaved Fon people first.
The reality of Dahomean wars with the Mahi kingdom is far less flattering. Rather than Mahi people provoking the wars by enslaving Fon, by 1823 Dahomey had already waged intermittent wars for the last several decades in an attempt to subjugate their northern neighbors. These wars were not typically fought for the expressed purpose of enslaving war captives, but rather for other imperialistic motivations, such as placing an easily controlled puppet ruler in charge or extracting tribute. Mahi identity itself is a product of a defensive alliance between multiple unrelated people groups in an effort to thwart aggression from Dahomey. The Woman King excludes this context. Why? Because acknowledging that our Dahomean protagonists were fighting not for their own freedom, but for the domination of their neighbors in this conflict would make them harder to root for.
The film also chooses to erase domestic slavery within Dahomey. Contrary to popular conception, African societies did not exclusively enslave people for the purpose of selling them to foreigners. Enslaved workers played an enormous role in the Dahomean economy. The exact social role played by these enslaved workers varied dramatically by era and location of their enslavement, as did their treatment. The emerging palm oil economy relied especially heavily on enslaved labor on plantations. However, when we see a palm oil plantation in the film, there is no hint of slavery. Instead, we are greeted with a field full of content workers who show no signs of distress or unhappiness. There is also a complete erasure of the small army of enslaved workers who served the king in his palace. Now, I’m not arguing that this film should have spent a major portion of its runtime discussing these issues, but it is undeniable that the film’s fans would never tolerate a similar treatment in, say, a film about the American South or colonial Caribbean. If a film about George Washington not only refused to acknowledge the enslaved labor force behind his plantation, but also his reliance on enslaved domestic workers in his daily life, I doubt critics would be willing to overlook this erasure in the way they do for The Woman King.
One of the most prominent owners of a palm oil plantation was a key figure within Ghezo’s government: the Brazilian slave trader Francisco Felix De Souza. Rather than featuring De Souza in the film, The Woman King makes a peculiar choice to split him into two analogous characters, the Brazilian slave merchant Santo Ferreira and his mixed-race friend Malik. The decision to split De Souza into two characters, as well as the way that these characters are written, results in several changes that make the story simpler, less interesting, and less in-tune with historical reality.
De Souza’s history in the Dahomey kingdom predates the rule of Ghezo, as he had been an active slave trader in Ouidah since 1800 at the latest. He came from an elite mixed-race family in Brazil, with a Portuguese noble father and an indigenous Amazonian mother. In fact, De Souza played an important role in initiating the coup that overthrew Adandozan in favor of Ghezo. Adandozan, as part of a dispute over debt, arrested and imprisoned De Souza. As a result, De Souza became a lifelong enemy of Adandozan. He later broke out of prison and played a pivotal role in supplying Ghezo and his allies with arms to support their coup. This was the beginning of a long political partnership between Ghezo and De Souza, with De Souza eventually achieving the position of, effectively, governor of the city of Ouidah, though officially he reported to a Fon superior. He later played a key role as a diplomat, serving as a representative of Ghezo in peace talks with Oyo. De Souza was not a colonizer, and is better characterized as an immigrant, as he sought to work within the Dahomean state and assimilated into Fon culture. He spoke Fongbe, practiced Vodun religious rites, engaged in polygamy according to Fon tradition, and sired dozens of legitimate children. His descendants remain one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in Ouidah to this day.
The Woman King spoils this interesting character by splitting him into two uninteresting characters. There is Santo Ferreira, a white slave trader who seemingly has no personality or interests beyond buying and selling slaves. The film maintains some of De Souza’s traits within him — he can speak Fongbe and has a half-African friend — but generally keeps him as a flat character. His actor, Hero Tiffin, confirmed that his goal in performing the character was to make him as unlikeable as possible. On the other hand, there is Malik, his friend. Malik’s character is hard to examine because the writers seemingly had no idea what to do with him. He arrives on a slaving ship, but hates slavery. He claims that he wants to return to his ancestral motherland in Dahomey, but later plans to run away to Britain with his love interest. He is very plainly ham-fistedly thrust into the film to add a romantic subplot. While Santo Ferreira represents De Souza’s business interests, Malik represents De Souza’s efforts to permanently establish himself in Dahomey, his mixed race heritage, and his propensity to rapidly become interested in and marry Fon women.
De Souza, like Ghezo, is a man whose morals do not align with modern audiences. He is also undeniably interesting. The man’s biography challenges so many perceptions of how the slave trade operated in Africa. From today’s perspective, nothing he did made sense. It seems unthinkable from our modern worldview that a white slave trader could sell Africans into servitude while praying to African spirits, assimilating into an African culture, siring legitimate African children, and serving an African monarch. Instead, the film avoids depicting the ways in which the values of the past conflict with our own, and split De Souza into two characters whose identities better conform to modern expectations.
Which brings me to the film’s greatest flaw: it’s perpetuation of a myth which to this day impedes the development of a relationship between Africa and the diaspora. This is the myth that Africans sold their own people’ into slavery. While it is true that the vast majority of enslaved Africans were initially captured by other African people, the idea of Africans “selling their own” is a product of viewing African history through the lens of a pan-African identity, one which did not exist at the time. The concept of “African people,” “African culture”, or truly any description of Africa outside of a purely geographical concept is a product of the ideology of Pan-Africanism, an ideology with roots in early anti-colonial nationalist movements in the early 20th century, but that truly became widespread on the eve of the the de jure decolonization of the continent 1950s, 60s and 70s. In every pre-colonial African state, it was incredibly rare for people to capture and sell members of their own in-group as slaves. The decision to sell members of the body politic occurred only in extraordinary times, such as in the aftermath of an especially bad civil war or other domestic disturbance — ironically, Ghezo’s rule was one of these exceptional times, in which he sold off several members of the royal family for supporting his brother during the coup — rather, the enslaved people sold to foreign slavers were typically either foreigners captured in war, foreigners from a submissive kingdom taken as tribute, or, on occasion, criminals who had ceded their right to live within the body politic. Claiming that Dahomey “sold their own” is as ridiculous as claiming that the Romans “enslaved their own” when invading Gaul or that the Japanese “killed their own ” when invading Korea.
The Woman King, on the other hand, strongly endorses the myth of Africans “selling their own” by having characters make anachronistic references to pan-African concepts. Nanisca claims in one scene that European slavers will not be satisfied until they have “conquered all of Africa.” Ghezo chastises Santo Ferreira for being in “the business of selling Africans.” The worst offence occurs when Nanisca straightforwardly states, regarding enslaved Africans, “Even if they are not Dahomey, they are still our people.” Through the inclusion of these references to anachronistic ideas, The Woman King perpetuates the notion of a natural “racial kinship” between kingdoms like Dahomey and the people they captured and sold, one which the slave traders betrayed. In reality, such racial kinship never existed.
The producers and creators of The Woman King had to know that they were stepping into a landmine with the creation of a film featuring such a sensitive topic. The film’s central problem is its adherence to contradictory narrative goals. The Woman King was supposed to be a “powerful true story,” but it was also supposed to be a Hollywood tale with simplistic heroes and villains. The film tried to be both, and failed. The Woman King’s failure is an enormous tragedy due to its wasted potential. The true story of Ghezo, De Souza, the war with Oyo and the female soldiers who fought for Dahomey would have made an excellent basis for the story of a complex anti-hero. It could have depicted the fascinating realities of one of the most tragic atrocities in human history in a respectful and honest manner. Instead, Prince-Bythewood tried to turn the epic tale of Dahomey into a knockoff Marvel flick.