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The True Story Behind The Woman King

GViola Davis’s imposing Viola Davis portrays eneral Nanisca. In the middle of the night, she slowly rises out of a tall grass bed. An entire army emerges from the grass behind her, every member holding a weapon.

When we meet them onscreen, the Agojie—a group of women warriors who fought for the kingdom of Dahomey—are inconspicuous, keeping a low profile. Their reputation was unmatched in West Africa’s 19th-century, when they were at their peak of power.

The woman is the KingThe history epic, titled “Gina Prince-Bythewood’s,” is out September 16. It chronicles the successes and trials of Agojie and Dahomey (a current-day Benin region). Leonard Wantchekon was a Princeton University professor in politics and international affairs who served as a historian advisor for the movie. He’s finishing up a book containing biographies of more than 50 of the Agojie, based on interviews with their descendants and communities.


General Nanisca, (Viola Davis), with Izogie (Lashana Lopez) young Agojie soldiers

Ilze Kitshoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment

“I think it’s something which even today would be considered revolutionary,” Wantchekon says of the women warriors. “Because all the training that it took, all the preparation it took, it’s actually something that happened. It’s not made up.”

While the Agojie are very much real—they existed for over a century—they also have inspired plenty of interpretations in pop culture, perhaps most notably the Dora Milaje in Black Panther. Marvel’s comic book series first introduced the Wakanda-based all-female special forces. However, they migrated onto screen in 2018, and have since played an integral part in their fictional African nation. (The sequel, Wakanda for Ever: Black Panther(It seems that he is more focused on Wakanda’s women.

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Prince-Bythewood has been credited Black Panther with helping to pave the way for this film—especially in an industry in which the stories of people of color have not always been prioritized by studios. But The woman is the KingIt marks the first American major motion picture that tells the Agojie’s story. It also addresses the role that Dahomey played in the slave trade—although it glosses over the fact that the king at the time only temporarily paused the kingdom’s participation in 1852.

These were the conditions which led to the Agojie’s rise

Wantchekon, an historical advisor is from Benin and was born one mile from the old palace of King Glele. King Ghezo’s son, Wantchekon, is the current ruler of the kingdom in The woman is the KingJohn Boyega portrays the character. The movie shows King Ghezo (played by John Boyega) and General Nanisca (played by John Boyega).

“I believe in the movie that Dahomey is presented as a highly, highly sophisticated state in a modern sense: with a standing army, with bureaucracy, with officials in charge of logistics,” Wantchekon says. “It’s not very surprising that something that extraordinary, like these female warriors, arose from these institutions.”

As a historical advisor, Wantchekon made sure that Dahomey was portrayed as a developed, sovereign state—rather than a stereotypical primitive tribe. The weapons that the Agojie and their male counterparts used, for instance, were often produced locally—certainly not all imported from Europe. Nawi, a young recruit from the Agojie, is shown going to the river to search for the best rock to sharpen the blade.

Thuso Mbedu, Viola Davis, and Shelia Atim as Agojie warriors in 'The Woman King' (Ilze Kitshoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Viola Davis, Shelia Atim, and Thuso Mbedu are Agojie warriors in “The Woman King”.

Ilze Kitshoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment

Of course, the Agojie didn’t exist in a vacuum. Much of Wantchekon’s research focuses on the social and political conditions within Dahomey that allowed for the rise of the elite women warriors. “You might see those institutions of women in isolation, as if it came from the sky or somewhere,” Wantchekon says. “But they are products of a social environment that enables women to do anything they want to do or they can do—including going to war.”

It was quite an oddity that the Agojie existed. Europeans referred to them simply as “Dahomey Amazons” in reference to all-female Amazon warriors from Greek mythology. Wantchekon outlines three important points regarding the conditions in which the Agojie thrived at Dahomey.

The origins of Dahomey Amazons’ existence are a mystery, even though the first known mention dates back to 1729. According to one theory, the Agojie started as dedicated elephant hunters. Wantchekon believes that Queen Hangbe (the twin sister to King Akaba) was the one who planted the seeds for the idea, which led to the creation of women warriors during the first 1700s.

Viola Davis as General Nanisca in 'The Woman King' (Ilze Kitshoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Viola Davis plays General Nanisca on ‘The Woman King.

Ilze Kitshoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment

Second, Wantchekon himself observed progressive gender roles in the region: Growing up in Benin, he noticed gender equality all around him, from children playing together at a young age to mixed-gender cultural groups to women’s involvement in economic activities. The Dahomey is not the first to have established inclusive gender norms.

Third, King Ghezo was the catalyst for expanding military power. “The idea was there, the social conditions were in place, but then he led the way—King Ghezo—to raise this to the highest level in terms of organization, number of people involved,” Wantchekon says. “Roughly anywhere from one-third to 40% of the whole army [was] made of women.” (At its peak, the Agojie included as many as 6,000 members.)

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How slavery was used in Dahomey Kingdom

But the Agojie—and the Dahomey—are not without complexity. You can find out more at In The woman is the King, Nanisca experiences firsthand the horrors of slavery, and works to convince King Ghezo to stop participating in the slave trade—or at least to end the tributary status of the Dahomey to the Oyo Empire. However, Nikole Hannah Jones (an investigative journalist) points out that this is not the case. pointed outThe Dahomeys did get some of their wealth through the slave trade, according to Twitter.

“When I came aboard, those were some of the first conversations,” Prince-Bythewood told The Hollywood Reporter. “But it was, ‘We’re going to tell the truth. We’re not going to shy away from anything.’ But also we’re telling a part of the story which is about overcoming and fighting for what’s right. And I think we got it right.”

The opening of The Woman King takes place in 1823. It is the year King Ghezo released Dahomey from its tributary position. Although the movie acknowledges that Dahomey does participate in the slave trade at the time, Nanisca is resolved to completely end the kingdom’s involvement—a concern she brings directly to the king, who seems to agree—a milestone that did not actually happen until decades later.

Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu are warriors in 'The Woman King' (Ilze Kitshoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Viola Davis is a warrior, while Thuso Mabedu is a woman king.

Ilze Kitshoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment

“Five percent of slave exports come from Dahomey,” Wantchekon says. It’s a “massive” number of human lives, he says, out of the total number, across Africa, of roughly 12.5 million people enslaved.

The professor acknowledges that the involvement of the Dahomey Kingdom in the slave trade—and the existence of the trade itself—was a tragedy. The professor also acknowledged that many facets could be true and highlighted at the same moment: A society can be progressive and advance in one area while doing immense harm in another.

When European history is discussed, he points out, scholars acknowledge the continent’s heavy involvement in the slave trade (or at least, they are starting to do so more now), and simultaneously recognize the contributions that each nation made to the world. Each existed independently of the other.

“There will always be time to consume the legacy of Dahomey and the slave trade,” Wantchekon says. “But also at the same time, like you do for any other continent, any other country, we also need to talk about things that they did independent of this—because those women were not slave raiders.”

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