Netflix recently put The Woman King on its streaming service after a successful theatrical run, which recently culminated in a number of film awards nominations (although, notably, not the Oscars). For many Netflix viewers, this will be the first time they’ve ever interacted in any way with Western African history. While some experts on the topic have argued that the film oversimplifies historical events, it is important that the popularity of The Woman King allows future films about African history to be made by native filmmakers and those of the wider African diaspora.
The story of Namisca (Viola Davis) leading the Agojie, a real-life army of women warriors, who protected King Gezo of Dahomey (John Boyega) is indeed based on history, but the backstory of the conflict with the Oyo Empire and the slave trade represented by Oba (Jimmy Odukoya) is much more complicated. While the Dahomey Empire was indeed paying tributes to the larger Oyo Empire, they were also independently wealthy from trading the enslaved in the previous centuries. The palm oil trade Namisca advocated as a way forward for Dahomey also involved the labor of the enslaved to harvest the oil.
While some historians may object to films deviating from the historical record, some of the best historical epics in the past have taken huge liberties with history. In fact, many period films are based on historical fiction novels that already deviate from the historical record because authors chose to embellish their interpretations of the past or current events from their eras. Some historical epic films are based on myths and legends that are presented as true history.
For example, the recent release of Corsage continues the long tradition of fictionalizing European royalty, often while overlooking their roles in perpetuating the slave trade or colonialism.In fact, there are many historical and action movies about royalty such as 1998’s Elizabeth and 2006’s Marie Antoinette which glorify European monarchs on the screen. These films contribute to the perception of African history being erased in the pop culture imagination, even if this was not the intention of individual creators. Films focusing on ancient Egypt such as the classic epics Cleopatra and The Ten Commandments may be set in Africa, they ignore sub-Saharan African history and also have white Europeans playing historical people of color. Even though the 1820s’ Dahomey Empire is a small section of a bigger story, The Woman King is reversing years of historical erasure of African monarchies on screen.
We must also consider who has decided what history is “historically accurate” in the past, as many African and Black diaspora histories have been wiped away through white historians either positing colonization, slavery, and colonialism as positives or sidestepping the issue by only featuring white people. Gone with the Wind is considered a classic film, but the way the film discusses the enslaved and freedmen is still wildly racist. There are also historical movies such as The Patriot which should have mentioned slavery as part of the historical or political context but sidestep the issue entirely. King Gezo’s role in the slave trade, conversely, may have been simplified but it was not completely glossed over.
Namisca along with fellow Adgojie Izogie (Lashawna Lynch) and the young trainee Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) are also changing the course of previous films. Many historical war movies such as 300 feature only men as warriors. Gina Price-Blythewood, the director of The Woman King told The Hollywood Reporter that she battled Hollywood for the film to even be made because many previous movies in this genre did not give Black women anything remotely heroic or action-oriented to do. In the same interview, Viola Davis said she was never offered an action movie role before.
Some viewers at home may believe The Woman King was inspired by Marvel’s fictionalized Dora Milaje in Black Panther and Wakanda Forever, however screenwriter Maria Bello traveled to Benin in 2015 to research the Agojie during the development process. This is not the first time historical fiction stories have been able to depict a closer to real life view of people or events depicted in fantasy, mythological, or science fiction films. For example Gladiator depicted ancient Rome as closer to history than movies based on novels or mythology about ancient Rome.
This creative team chose to break the rules because their goal was to tackle a difficult topic in a way that uplifted Black audiences. While The Woman King depicted the enslaved in jail and on the auction block, there was also an emphasis on depicting Black joy and family bonding. We also see Black women in positions of power and influence as well.
The Woman King also swerves around some common storytelling tropes from previous films and TV. Introducing Santo (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) as a Portuguese slave trader and Malik (Jordan Bolger) as a biracial Portuguese and Dahomey man avoids the highly problematic trope of an enslaved person falling in love with captors or colonizers. This is an important contrast to movies such as Jefferson in Paris which romanticizes Thomas Jefferson’s sexual abuse of Sally Hemmings as an “affair.”
The positive aspects of The Woman King, especially in regards representing Black women on screen far outweigh the deviations from the historical record. Whether Netflix viewers are inspired to do their own research on the Dahomey Empire and other topics in African history or the next generation of Black filmmakers are now inspired to create their own historical epic films, The Woman King is indeed setting a positive trend in period films.
Twenty-five years ago, and during a renaissance for historical epics out of Hollywood, the industry would never entertain making a movie like The Woman King. The success of the film proves there is not only an audience for this type of film, but there are rich and long overlooked histories across the African continent waiting to be told. The Woman King just made it easier for those stories to at last take center stage.