The Woman King Rewrites History for a Feminist Twist on the Slave Trade

Hollywood often takes liberties. But there's a distinction to be made between poetic license and historical revisionism.


It's difficult to watch The Woman King and not conclude it's a masterfully made movie. It has soaring action scenes—the sort that will make you squirm and scream—unconventionally led by a cast of female Amazonian warriors. It has Viola Davis, whose reputation as one of the most formidable actresses alive needs little explanation. And it has a riveting, relevant plot, centered around a kingdom in West Africa that begrudgingly participates in the 19th-century slave trade while it makes moves behind the scenes to hamstring it.

That it's based on an unbelievable true story should only add to the film's appeal. Instead, it destroys it.

That's because the unbelievable true story is truly unbelievable, in that it's false. The film is indeed based on history. But it's a revisionist one and not one that can be hand waved away.

The movie takes place in the area that is now southern Benin, known as the Kingdom of Dahomey, which existed from the beginning of the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th. Davis plays Nanisca, the leader of an army called the Agojie composed entirely of women. We see them train and fight and capture people from nearby villages. Their prisoners are then sold to the Oyo Empire, which brokers deals with European slave traders.

But behind the facade we see in battle, Nanisca—loosely based on a real person—is wrought with guilt over enslaving her fellow man and woman. She pleads with King Ghezo, who ruled Dahomey from 1818 to 1859, to withdraw from the trade, suggesting he instead assert economic dominance in the region by relying on the kingdom's share of palm oil. Epic battles between the Agojie and the Oyo fighters ensue, and (spoiler alert) the (surviving) European slavers are sent packing.

It's a tale that makes for a compelling, mostly sympathetic watch. But it requires you go into the theater blind, as I did. And it requires that you stay that way—and stay away from Google—after you leave, which I did not.

Absent from the film is that the Kingdom of Dahomey's success did not hinge on the abolition of slavery. Its demise did, which came about when Great Britain crippled the trade. After Ghezo rebuffed their insistence that he stop buying and selling human beings, the British instituted a naval blockade in the early 1850s, forcing his hand. It was then that he transitioned to heavy reliance on palm oil—not because he wanted to leave the slave trade but in spite of his desire to continue it.

As the movie progresses, viewers watch as the Portuguese—who arrived in Africa to purchase slaves—are vanquished by Davis and company. It's hard not to cheer when a group of African men, recently freed from bondage, take the European leader Santo Ferreira (played by Hero Fiennes Tiffin) and drown him in shallow water. Missing from the conversation is that Ferreira appears to be based on Francisco Félix de Sousa, who, in reality, helped King Ghezo execute a coup d'etat so the two men could together reinvigorate the slave trade.

Hollywood has often taken liberties in telling historical dramas; this isn't new. But there's an important distinction to be made between poetic license and historical revisionism. To portray Dahomey as a kingdom of freedom fighters would be akin to producing a movie about the Confederacy as an anti-slavery republic, starring Robert E. Lee as the primary abolitionist. Society would rightfully reject such a film, at least in today's day and age.

But The Woman King has received a warm critical reception in reviews from the country's largest media outlets that fail to reckon with or even mention the historical conflict when evaluating its merits. "Viola Davis reigns supreme," writes The Washington Post, whose critic adds that whether or not the slave-driven moral quandary "is literally true to life is beside the point." OK. "She slays," says The New York Times. The movie is not only "truly inspiring," says a review on ABC News, but "no white saviors need apply." The slave trade, but make it feminist.

Such evaluations don't necessarily land as a surprise. The movie has several elements to please the crowd: fierce female warriors, intersectionality, and racial justice chief among them. "The women are their own greatest weapons, and among everything else it addresses," the Times writes, "'The Woman King' is about strong, dynamic Black women, their souls, minds and bodies." We are supposed to forget that this kingdom we are glorifying did so via the subjugation and suffering of other black people, which, apart from slavery, included killing thousands upon thousands of their prisoners in human sacrifice rituals each year.

This is the central problem here: The Woman King all but encapsulates the values that take precedence in popular culture. But the producers had to rewrite the history books to get there, because telling a more respectfully-accurate story would've required them to buck how we are supposed to talk about such things. Everything must be black and white; there can be no gray. (It is rumored that the actress Lupita Nyong'o, who was originally cast in the film, dropped out over reservations about the historical presentation.)

And yet, such revisionism is not confined to one subject or one political faction. That much is clear, ironically, in ongoing debates around the history of the Confederacy and its relationship to slavery here in America. I've written quite frequently about the need to present such history with precision and to not glorify Confederate military leaders with public monuments, which represent perhaps the largest participation trophies in modern times. But to argue it's kosher to rewrite history for The Woman King simply because others have unfortunately rewritten history on similar topics is to say that historical integrity doesn't matter at all. Revisionism isn't just wrong when done by your ideological foes.

After all, history is best when interrogated and questioned—not sanitized or, in this case, redrafted for the sake of convenience. A great movie would have presented that history in full, likely leaving many viewers exiting the theater unsure of how to feel. In The Woman King, you know how to feel, because you're told how to feel. It's decidedly less rewarding than the alternative.