Even with beautiful cinematography, a compelling narrative, and an impressive cast that includes Viola Davis and John Boyega, The Woman King is a historical epic fraught with controversy. Primarily focusing on the all-women warrior legion known as the Agojie in 1823, it also examines the socio-political environment of the Kingdom of Dahomey during the early 19th century, and the exportation it engaged in of its own people. As the leader of the Agojie under the rule of Boyega’s King Ghezo, Davis’s General Nanisca struggles with reconciling the indentured industry that provides a lucrative way of life at a considerable moral cost.
While The Woman King doesn’t try to conceal or erase the source of Dahomey’s wealth or the focus of its major resources, how it’s presented has been heavily scrutinized. Viola Davis addressed The Woman King’s historical inaccuracy in the past, citing that the choice to marry the factual with the fictional has always been rooted in the purpose of better entertainment. For some audiences, however, simply including the involuntary relocation of Nanisca’s own people isn’t enough if the manner is heavily sanitized.
King Ghezo’s Depiction In The Woman King Has Created Controversy
Much of the source of the controversy in The Woman King falls on the depiction of King Ghezo, the man responsible for bringing other Africans to auction in port towns under tributary status to the Oyo Empire. Of course, Dahomey’s primary business isn’t ignored, but Ghezo is hardly depicted in an unfavorable light and is seen as a benevolent figure trying to do what’s best for his subjects. At the mercy of the Oyo Empire, he’s presented as an intelligent individual who does what he must so that his kingdom can survive rather than someone exploiting a resource on purpose for monetary gain.
Though The Woman King’s true story has been changed somewhat, there are moments throughout the movie in which Nanisca tries to dissuade Ghezo from accumulating wealth based on the trading of enslaved people, particularly after violence erupts between her closest sisters-in-arms, Lieutenant Amenza (Shiela Atim), Lieutenant Izogie (Lashana Lynch), and new recruit Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) and the Oyo at one of the port towns. These instances directly confront the situation but sometimes struggle to effectively make commentary about it. It hardly glorifies what Ghezo is doing but could do more to condemn it.
How Controversial Aspects Of The Woman King Led To Boycotts
From issues with two white women (Dana Steens and Maria Bello) telling the stories of Black women to the depiction of King Ghezo auctioning off his own people to the Oyo and visiting Europeans, The Woman King was mired in enough controversy to lead to boycotts of the film. Despite The Woman King’s high Rotten Tomatoes score, some critics felt the movie was offensive to Black people by glorifying aspects of a repugnant trade. At the same time, some fans saw it as a female empowerment story set in a particularly tumultuous period for the Kingdom of Dahomey.
In trying to tell a nuanced story about the Agojie from their perspective, aspects of King Ghezo and how he ruled were modified. Given how much of the information available today comes from the colonizer’s point of view, it was understandably difficult to approach the topics with the right amount of sensitivity. Most importantly, the crucial social position that the Agojie held in Dahomean society needed to be the primary focus of The Woman King while at the same time highlighting the cultural crossroads Dahomey was in at the time.