“The Woman King,” a new “historical action epic” starring Viola Davis, has been treated to laudatory reviews by the corporate press. It has been called “indelible and truly inspiring” in an ABC News review which features the subhead “Black women only — no white saviors need apply.” The Daily Beast labeled it “an absolute blast of a cinematic experience,” praising its “thick layers of history.”
Set in 1823 in the West African kingdom of Dahomey (modern Benin), the movie pits the innocent Dahomans, protected by the elite all-female Agojie army, against the evil Oyo Empire, which operates as a brutal arm of the European slave trade and wishes to force Dahomey into providing slaves. Dahomey is portrayed as a kingdom that only wishes for peace and autonomy, whose king, Ghezo (John Boyega), is looking for alternatives to the awful trade in which his tribe has been reluctantly forced to participate. Besides manfully defending the citizens and king of Dahomey, the Agojie, under their leader Nanisca (Davis), are also proponents of ending the slave trade and replacing it with the cultivation of palm oil.
Throughout the film, Dahomey is presented as a small, put-upon kingdom that only seeks harmony and desires the destruction of the evil trade in human bodies — led by greedy Europeans — which plagued the region. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, “The Woman King” is an “incredible true story” about “this amazing group of female soldiers who caused such an act of resistance that slavery paused for a time.”
The problem? Almost none of this is true.
Not only does the movie massage the events of the past to fit a progressive narrative, it outright reverses the polarity of history entirely and makes heroic a kingdom that was, in reality, one of the biggest drivers of the slave trade. It only takes a brief look at the primary sources to completely debunk the entire plot of “The Woman King.”
The biggest issue with the movie’s historical depiction is how it discusses Dahomey’s involvement in the slave trade. In the film, King Ghezo is shown as a leader who wishes to escape involvement in the trade, which has been forced on him by the evil Oyo and their European allies. In reality, Ghezo was put in power by a coup supported heavily by Brazilian slave traders, one which transformed Dahomey into “the dreaded oppressor of neighboring nations.” The king who Ghezo deposed was, in actuality, the one who briefly attempted a switch to agriculture; the scholar I.A. Akinjogbin writes that Ghezo’s coup was intended to “succeed where his predecessors had failed” in maintaining a prosperous slave trade. The new king had a deep relationship with the European slavers who helped put him on the throne, especially Francisco Felix de Souza, who “was considered the second king of Dahomey” due to his influence in court.
According to Frederick E. Forbes, a commander in the British Royal Navy who wrote of his visits to Ghezo’s Dahomey, the kingdom became extremely militaristic after the coup and actively attacked its neighbors: “…should a neighboring people become rich, it is regarded as sufficient insult to call forth an immediate declaration of war from the court of Dahomey.” Ghezo was called “a monarch whose whole existence depends on the slave trade, whose every exertion is to supply a larger number to the market of the preceding year.” One victim of this slave-raiding aggression was a nearby independent community of Igbo tribes, which was put under unprovoked Dahoman assault. The Bradford Observer of March 24, 1859 — noting the death of Ghezo, whom they label “a scourge of the human race” — has the details: “He attacked them, burnt their towns, carried off the choicest people, and when his own violence was unsuccessful, his intrigues introduced civil war, which completed their ruin.”
Forbes also described Dahoman culture as inherently militaristic and driven by conquest and booty: “The nucleus of the national power, the throne, is occupied at the pleasure of the militant people, who claim an annual war as a birthright.” These regular wars were undertaken purely for the capture of slaves and the expansion of Dahomey as a kingdom; Forbes describes Dahoman combat as “a war of extermination, and with the conquest falls the very name of the kingdom, never more to be revived.” Ironically enough for the woke historians who decry imperialism, Dahoman officials favorably compared their kingdom to England: “Your queen can conquer all white nations, Ghezo can take all blacks.” A munificent and peaceful ruler Ghezo was not.
What of the film’s supposed focus on female empowerment? Well, the Agojie warriors — known to Europeans as Amazons — did exist and were a fearsome fighting force. In terms of history corroborating “The Woman King’s” fiction, the similarities end there. Contrary to the film’s depiction, the Agojie were primarily slave raiders who carried out wars of conquest on Dahomey’s neighbors. Forbes describes them as “exceeding their male coadjutors in cruelty and all the stronger passions” and quotes them as chanting, “[we] will conquer or die!” The supposedly-progressive King Ghezo himself had “thousands of wives,” including many forcibly captured by the Agojie for his sexual enjoyment. To top this, human sacrifice was common, with the Bradford Observer humorously remarking that upon Ghezo’s death:
“It had been proposed to facilitate Ghezo’s admission into the other world by the slaughter of 2,000 Africans, but, whether from the difficulty of procuring that number or from their greatly increased value to the Spaniards, the massacre was happily limited to 800.”
None of this has stopped the film’s boosters from pushing the idea that “The Woman King” is a meaningful historical work. For instance, NBC ran a review titled: “‘The Woman King’ may not be 100% factual. But that doesn’t stop it from being a must-see.” Yahoo, when discussing the issue, labeled these historical problems as merely “perceived inaccuracies,” while the movie’s director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, has declined to see any issues whatsoever with the way the reality of Dahomey is depicted in her work.
This attitude of denial in the face of historical truth echoes the response by proponents of the 1619 Project, who flat-out refuse to accept the criticisms of that work’s factual basis. This proves that between progressives in academia, woke journalists in the corporate media, and Hollywood liberals, the left has a firm grasp on the levers of historical truth, with which they intend to promote their political ideology. As George Orwell presciently wrote in his masterwork 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”
Fortunately, the left tends to overreach and make unforced errors; the laughable treatment of history in “The Woman King” seems to be one of them. Conservatives and historians could ask for no better example of this absurdity than a film that presents a genocidal, slave-raiding kingdom as beneficent defenders of freedom. If you’re looking for accurate history (or general enjoyment) in a film, you’d be better off watching “Inglourious Basterds.”
Mike Coté is a writer and podcaster focusing on history, Great Power rivalry, and geopolitics. He blogs at rationalpolicy.com, hosts the Rational Policy podcast, and can be found on Twitter @ratlpolicy.
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