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The True Story Behind ‘The Woman King’ And The Agojie Warriors

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest directorial effort brings the history of the all-female Agojie warriors to the silver screen.

Now streaming on Netflix, The Woman King, directed by Gina Prince Bythewood, is a historical epic that takes a detour from the typical Eurocentric trappings of Hollywood to focus on a real community from West African history, the mighty kingdom of Dahomey.

Starring Viola Davis,Lashana Lynch, and Thuso Mbedu, The Woman King centers around the Agojie, one of history’s all-female warrior groups who protected Dahomey for nearly three-hundred years between the 18th and early 20th centuries. Jam-packed with riveting action sequences, a dramatic screenplay, and a primarily Black female cast, The Woman King is an entirely original effort of recent blockbusters. Besides its high entertainment value, The Woman King is a departure from typical big-budget film productions, embodying an aspirational spirit of female empowerment through its narrative while shining a light on a period of African history totally unrepresented in mainstream filmmaking. Let’s take a look at the real-life history behind The Woman King.

What Is ‘The Woman King’ About?

The Woman King takes place during the 1820s and centers around the African kingdom of Dahomey, where a rebellious teenage girl called Nawi (Mbedu) is pushed by her family to join the Agojie, a fierce female warrior troop that holds the responsibility to protect the domain of their people. As Nawi is shaped into the model Agojie, she creates deep connections with her fellow female corps, particularly with the stoic and powerful General Nanisca (Davis), leader of the troops.

As Nawi, Nansica, and the rest of the Agojie warriors toil to guard their community from neighboring kingdoms and encroaching European slave traders, the two women uncover a truth that brings their personal histories closer together than they ever imagined. Well-balanced between impressive battle scenes and melodramatic tension, The Woman King offers a compelling viewing experience for every audience.

What Was the Kingdom Of Dahomey?

The Kingdom of Dahomey was located in Western Africa on the Gulf of Guinea and existed between the 1620s and the early-1900s. Under the central power of a king, who was granted rule through his ancestral heritage, Dahomey maintained a thriving cultural and socio-economic system that allowed the kingdom to evolve constantly.

Unlike most western cultures, the women of Dahomey held many roles of importance outside domestic duties – each male palace official even had an equivalent female counterpart – contributing to the respect and esteem held by the Agojie warriors. Depicted as the central conflict in The Woman King, Dahomey was in frequent conflict with its neighboring kingdom, the mighty Oyo Empire.

While Dahomey did stimulate its economy through trade with neighboring kingdoms and communities, it primarily counted on trading with European merchants, easily accessed due to Dahomey’s advantageous location on the coastline. Palm oil production was essential to Dahomey’s growth, but the kingdom relied mainly on the slave trade with Europeans for its economic growth. Dahomey did not sell their own people into slavery, but captives of war, as portrayed in The Woman King. The kingdom’s dependency on the slave trade allowed it to prosper until the mid-19th century, when the abolition of the trade occurred in European territories and the Americas, leading to the decline of Dahomey’s prosperity. The Woman King features John Boyega as King Ghezo, an actual ruler of Dahomey between 1818 and 1858, who led the kingdom during a particularly tumultuous period in its history.

Who Were the Agojie Warriors?

The all-female warrior troops of Dahomey were called the Agojie or the Mino in their culture, only becoming coined as the “Dahomey Amazons” by the French during the 19th century. The Agojie developed from a tradition of female elephant hunters, codifying into organized troops beginning in the 1720s. By the mid-1800s, the Agojie battalions reached their peak numbers between 6000 and 8000, making up most of Dahomey’s military. During the height of their power, the Agojie recruitment sought out tall, agile, athletic teenage girls from local villages who underwent extensive training, requiring much discipline, physical prowess, and conditioning in intense combat. This laborious training process is illustrated in The Woman King through the physical and mental transformation of Nawi’s character, playing a significant role in the build-up of the film’s narrative. When the young conscripts had completed their difficult training, the women were fully prepared to serve and protect the Kingdom of Dahomey.

The preferred battle tactics of the Agojie women included close hand-to-hand combat, surprise attacks, and ambushing their enemies. The warriors mainly employed bows and poisonous arrows, daggers, and spears but also utilized muskets and canons. As a result, the Agojie were widely feared for their bravery and ferocity in battle, adding to their notoriety on the African continent. While most of The Woman King and its characters were largely fictionalized, a few of its central roles were inspired by actual accounts of Agojie women; Mbedu’s adolescent character Nawi was known as one of the last of the Agojie warriors, who passed away in 1979 at over 100 years in age. Davis’s matriarchal role as General Nanisca got her moniker from the historical account of a French merchant who had met an Agojie warrior named Nanisca during the late-1890s.

What Happened to Dahomey?

Dahomey began to collapse during the last years of the 19th century. When the abolition of the slave trade occurred, French imperialism began to put a chokehold on the West African coast, pressuring Dahomey for natural resources and territory. After unceasing conflict with neighboring areas controlled by the French, the First Franco-Dahomean War took place in early 1890. After months of battle between the Dahomey and the troops of France, the French proved victorious, and a peace treaty was signed in October of the same year. Unfortunately, the respite did not last long: two years later, another conflict began – the Second Franco-Dajomean War. More violent than the first, the Second-Franco Dahomean War saw many battles, leading to the decimation of the Agojie warriors. In 1894, Dahomey finally capitulated to the French, and Dahomey was merged with the French colonies of West Africa. Today, the land of Dahomey now resides within the borders of the Republic of Benin.

The Woman King stands out from conventional inspirations for the historical epic genre, which too commonly relies on the bygone times of European history. Instead, the film and its portrayal of Dahomey’s people and culture have revealed the former country’s rich past to an enormous audience through The Woman King’s commercial success worldwide. Since its release last fall, many critics and audiences have praised the movie for its compelling storytelling and impressive craft. While some detractors have slammed the film’s historical accuracy and screenplay that a white woman penned, The Woman King is an unprecedented Hollywood film that will hopefully make room for more inclusive storytelling in future mainstream productions.

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