Arts & Entertainment

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

By Billy Binion, Reason

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.

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