The Woman King

While I was doing doctoral studies on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its impact on African kingdoms in West Africa, it never crossed my mind that Hollywood would produce a film on this topic. However, after attending the “First Friday” showing of the new film The Woman King, I was prompted to write this film review.

This film is the first Hollywood effort at exploring an extremely contentious period in human history, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. During this period of the 1820s, African slaves were captured and traded to Europeans in exchange for primarily guns and other material items.

The film delves into the mechanics and complexities of how the kingdom of Dahomey existed and survived within the vortex of the West African slave trade and more specifically regarding King Gezo and his women’s military arm of Amazon warriors, called the Agojie.

The film’s narrative explores the behavior and statesmanship of King Gezo of Dahomey and his women warriors, led by General Nanisca, played by Viola Davis. Davis’s warriors include the noted British actress and James Bond lead, Lashana Lynch, as Izogie; British actor of Star Wars fame, John Boyega, as King Gezo; and actress Thuso Mbedu as Nawi, daughter of Nanisca, sired during a vicious gang rape by Oyo kingdom soldiers, the sworn enemy of Dahomey.

A promotional gimmick observed by anyone who has viewed the film is that Nanisca is not a king; in fact, she repeatedly says that she fights for her king.

The backstory of the film is interesting, with noted actress Maria Bello traveling to the West African nation of Benin (Dahomey) to research a story that fascinated her, the story of the Agojie. Returning to the states, Bello, with the assistance of writer Dana Stevens, wrote the script and successfully pitched it to Davis; Davis hired Love and Basketball director Gina Prince-Bythewood to direct the film.

Bello and Stevens are Americans of European ancestry, and their script and screenplay are sophomoric and formulaic. Therefore, the film’s themes are tragedy, revenge, redemption and, as always, a love story unrequited.

Bello outlined the broad sweep of Dahomey’s slave history and was obviously assisted by a Dahomean historian who knew the little-known problematic of palm oil (legitimate trade) versus continued slave trading (illegitimate trade). However, this person was not given credit in any reviews or interviews with Bello or Stevens.

The palm oil dilemma was directly connected to what historians describe as the structural social relations of the trade as determined by the dialectic between “buyers and sellers.” This was the class relations between European merchant capitalists and their class counterpart, the African aristocratic caste/class, which was the sine qua non of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

As my doctoral research was on Ashanti law, I traveled to Ghana and Benin. At the Oba’s (king) palace in Benin, I heard the tour guide proudly describe the huge English oak and decorative royal chair as being acquired at the time of the slave trade—“acquired” by the exchange of numerous slaves captured.

In The Woman King, viewers see the Portuguese buyer of slaves and the seller, King Gezo and his kingdom of Dahomey. Also, the film shows the imperialistic conflict between the aggressively expanding empires of Oyo versus Dahomey. Imperialistic expansion eventually led to the landlocked Dahomey capturing the port of Whydah. In the film, it is captured by the Agojie led by General Nanisca.

The Woman King portrays King Gezo as a rational, reflective, diplomatic leader, but this image must be contrasted with how historians have written and examined the King. These professional historians have not tooted his horn, and their writings reveal the darker side of an absolute monarch advancing the slave trade to increase his wealth and power.

Yes, there is a dialogue between King Gezo and his Portuguese partner-in-crime that has Gezo responding to the Portuguese slaver that the slaving in humans has made Gezo rich and powerful. Boyega as Gezo quietly acknowledges this fact. According to several historians, Whydah slavers shipped around one million captured Africans to the Americas from 1658 to 1865.

One popular 1957 Hollywood film that parallels this darker image is Band of Angels. The film stars Yvonne De Carlo, Sidney Poitier and Clark Gable as a slaver and slave raider acquiring slaves with King Gezo. On one such raid, Gable sees the King’s men recklessly killing old men, women and children.

Gable’s character, Hamish Bond, sees an infant crawling out from under his dying mother, who had been spared, and the child’s fate would have been the same, but Bond steps between the child and the attacker and is speared in his leg. An angry Bond turns and shoots and kills several of Gezo’s men. King Gezo starts laughing maniacally, stops the bloodshed and hands Bond the infant male child.

Bond decides to end his career as a slaver and goes to New Orleans with the child. He uses his acquired wealth to become a southern gentleman and raises Rau-ru (Poitier) as his own. De Carlo plays a white-looking mulatta slave woman who falls in love with Bond.

This interracial “forbidden love-lust” is a thematic stereotype in Hollywood storytelling, and Bello fell headfirst into it as she has Malik (Portuguese slaver whose mother was Dahomean) and Nawi becoming lovers via one night of passion. It is obvious that gender and race relations are the driving forces of this aspect of the film’s portrayal of the Agojie.

At this point, one can pause to pose this question: What is the origin of the Agojie? The composition of the fighting group includes women slave captives and young women such as Nawi who asserted their independence from the patriarchal society of Dahomey. Nawi refuses her father’s coercive marriage to an older man.

As with most women in the Agojie, they experience some aspects of women’s subjugated social condition that is normalized in a male-dominated sexist culture and society. General Nanisca is seen as an outcast (osu) because she was a victim of rape while other outcasts violated the male societal rules that penalized women birthing twins or committing adultery. In Dahomey, the entire culture reeks of sexism gone berserk.

By the 1890s, most of the Agojie were slaughtered (including the real Nanisca) by the colonial French invading army and their new “maxim” gun.

The Woman King is not the film for those who would like to romanticize African kingdoms with pomp and pageantry. It was a hard life for those at the bottom but not for those in the palaces as clearly seen in the film with Gezo’s pampered harem of multiple wives.

In an unintended way, this film reveals that those who sold slaves have a guilt, as it is said in Bantu, “time longer than rope.” However, no one today takes any responsibility for this awful history.

For example, while I was visiting Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti nation, one Akan man (a citizen of the Ashanti nation) said to me, “Oh, you have just come from the coastal Fanti nation who sold your ancestors to the Europeans,” and while leaving Fanti land, one man said, “And now you are going inland to visit the Ashanti who sold your ancestors to the Europeans.” Like the old R&B song goes, “And the beat goes on.”

(Author’s note: For further reading on the Agojie, visit www.blackpast.org and read “Ahosi (Amazons) of Dahomey.” Since the release of The Woman King, there have been more than one million readers of this encyclopedic entry.)

  • Malik Simba

    Dr. Malik Simba is professor emeritus of history and Africana studies at Fresno State and has taught at the University of Minnesota, Binghamton University and Clarion University. His book, Black Marxism and American Constitutionalism: From the Colonial Background through the Ascendancy of Barack Obama and the Dilemma of Black Lives Matter, is used widely. Dr. Simba serves on the board of Blackpast.org, the Google of the Africana experience.

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