Is ‘The Woman King’ a True Story?

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The trailer for The Woman King advertises that it is “Based on Powerful True Events.” The events depicted in the film involve a group known as the Agojie, a ferocious platoon of female warriors who protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey. In the film, it’s 1823 and the Dahomey are under assault from a neighboring kingdom, the Oyo Empire. A brave Agojie general named Nanisca (Viola Davis) who serves King Ghezo (John Boyega) works to protect her people — and to convince Ghezo that their country’s participation in the slave trade is a “poison” that needs to stop. (When both the Oyo and the Dahomey capture enemy combatants in battle, they sell these prisoners into slavery.)

That’s The Woman King’s story. But unlike the trailer, the film itself doesn’t actually include any sort of title card claiming it is a work of historical fiction — and it’s also worth noting that saying something is based on “true events” is not quite the same as saying something is based on a “true story.” Technically speaking, The Amityville Horror is based on true events. The story that the film version tells, though, is clearly a work of fiction.

So is The Woman King a true story? Yes and no; the carefully worded line in the trailer about “powerful true events” was there for a reason. A lot of The Woman King is absolutely based in the historical record. Some parts, though, are not.

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All of the basic outlines of the premise and setting are accurate. There really was a kingdom called Dahomey, ruled by a King Ghezo, who reigned there from 1818 to 1859. The country did employ an all-female regiment of its army known as the Agojie, who, as depicted in the film, adhered to a monk-like existence. The Agojie lived in the King’s palace in their own separate enclave away from all other men. They never married, they never had sex, and they never had children. (Or at least they weren’t supposed to.) Just as in the film, the Dahomey stopped paying tribute to the Oyo and then defeated them in a battle that shifted the balance of power in the region.

But as detailed by Smithsonian Magazine, elements of the film are not true to the historical record. The film’s two female leads, Nanisca and Nawi, are both fictional creations — although there were members of the Agojie with those names at various points in history. According to Smithsonian, the real-life Nanisca was observed by a French naval officer in 1889, decades after the events chronicled in The Woman King.

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Rather than a general, the real Nanisca was a young woman “who had not yet killed anyone,” who was put through a trial much like the ones depicted in the film. (Interestingly, the real Nanisca sounds more like The Woman King’s fictional Nawi, played by Thuso Mbedu, a new member of the Agojie who comes into conflict with Davis’ Nanisca.) The real-life Nawi was the last known member of the Agojie to survive into the 20th century; she finally passed away in 1979.

The main sources of tension between history and The Woman King’s depiction of events come not in the details of the Dahomey’s war with the Oyo, but rather with the political struggles and palace intrigue happening amidst the battlefield scenes. In the film, General Nanisca is depicted as a strident leader for change in Dahomey. She repeatedly urges Ghezo to end the slave trade, while he is shown as reluctant to cut off one of his kingdom’s main sources of wealth. To prove Dahomey does not need slaves, Nanisca helps ramp up the nation’s production of palm oil, arguing that its export could replace any lost income from slavery.

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It makes for a fascinating story, but the experts quoted in that Smithsonian article are doubtful any such incidents really took place. They quote architectural historian Lynne Ellsworth Larsen who says “Do I think it’s historically accurate? I’m skeptical … These women are symbols of strength and of power. But … they’re [also] complicit in a problematic system. They are still under the patriarchy of the king, and they are still players in the slave trade.

Any suggestion that King Ghezo decided to end slavery in Dahomey due to the actions of Nanisca or any other members of the Agojie does not seem to be reflected in history, at least not in the 1820s. Per Smithsonian:

In truth, Ghezo only agreed to end Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade in 1852, after years of pressure by the British government, which had abolished slavery (for not wholly altruistic reasons) in its own colonies in 1833. Though Ghezo did at one point explore palm oil production as an alternative source of revenue, it proved far less lucrative, and the king soon resumed Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade.

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In other words, while the fictional Nanisca’s battle to change her home for the better is exciting to watch, it is indeed a fictional battle set against real historical events. History, as is often the case, was a little more complicated. But that doesn’t mean The Woman King isn’t a highly entertaining and powerful war film.

For more on the history of the Agojie, read Smithsonian Magazine’s essay on Dahomey history.

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