In the 18th century, the Dahomey kingdom had a formidable and powerful female army called the Agojie. The army became stronger in King Ghezo’s reign. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the film depicts how Agojie general Nanisca was chosen by King Ghezo to be the woman king. This film not only depicts the bravery of Agojie and their protest against the slave trade, but it also emphasizes their fight against patriarchy. However, it is questionable how much the history portrayed in the film deviates from the truth. There are several conflicting views on this, and we will also go into detail to discuss those differences.
Written by Dana Stevens and Maria Bello, the partly fictional narrative of “The Woman King” is very powerful and touching, but there are several things to discuss regarding the difference with their actual history. The Agojie general, Nanisca, portrayed by Viola Devis, was an entirely fictitious character. In fact, Nanisca’s daughter Nawi was also a non-canonical character in the movie. However, at the beginning of the 1800s, when the soldiers of Agojie numbered about 6000, names like Nanisca and Nawi were found among them. Though the writers have taken enough creative liberty, the film looks stunning and enthralling enough to keep us glued to the screen. But if we analyze the history, we might find numerous inaccuracies in the presentation of “The Woman King.”
The time period depicted in the movie was 1823, under King Ghezo’s reign. During King Ghezo’s reign, Dahomey was freed from its tributary status, which entirely eliminated their hostility with the Oyo Empire. Played by John Boyega, King Ghezo was an actual historical figure, as shown in “The Woman King.” According to Dahomeyan history, King Ghezo deposed his brother and took control of the kingdom in 1818. Until 1859, he was the ruler of Dahomey. During his timeline, the army of Agojie, or the Dahomey Amazons, grew more powerful and ferocious. But the existence of Agojie was much more ancient, as it was formed long before King Ghezo was crowned. According to the history of Dahomey, they were probably formed in the 17th century, most likely during the reign of King Houegbadja. An enormous loss of male troops in battle served as the primary reason for gathering these women to form an army. Even according to some historical advisers, Dahomey’s tradition believed in the empowerment of women. They did not want to build a security system in a conventional way like other states but instead wanted to build Dahomey strong and safe from all sides, which is why they included an all-female army.
We have seen Nawi’s (played by Thuso Mbedu) tragic story in the movie: how she was ostracized by her foster parents and sent to the King because she was not getting married. That was factually correct because, during Ghezo’s reign, women who were captives or orphans were accepted in the King’s palace and admitted in the army. Even Agojie welcomed many 8-year-old kids into their group and trained them in mercenary skills. But was there really a ban on marriage for Agojie? The answer is yes.
The Agojie were not allowed to marry or have children. This one authentic information is depicted in the film. Just as history mentions the empowerment of women in the Dahomey Kingdom, it also mentions the suppression of their desires by patriarchal influence. The Agojie were forbidden to marry and motivated to accept King Ghezo as their ultimate priority.
Gina Prince brilliantly captured this aspect in the movie through Nanisca’s confession to Amenza that she was not brave enough to acknowledge her child. This is where “The Woman King” wants to convey that true courage lies not only in fighting as a warrior but in prioritizing our own choices. Being a great fighter, a mother, or both—every choice should be acknowledged. In actuality, Agojie’s situation had not changed; rather, rumors suggested that they were engaged in romantic relationships with one another.
However, the Agojies were not so kind-hearted in reality. The way they are portrayed in the film is a bit of a heroic representation. They were indeed heroic and brave soldiers, but they were extremely violent. The Agojie troops battled quite savagely and frequently brought the severed heads of the enemy back to the kingdom. In fact, there were rumors that they used to cut their victims’ throats and drink their blood. I’m not going to pass judgment on the truth of this, but there are some facts in the film that are completely sugar coated. The palm oil trade started during Ghezo’s reign, but there is no mention in the history of Dahomey that they had stopped the slave trade on Agojie’s advice. During King Ghezo’s timeline, the slave trade continued since it increased the King’s wealth. There is a mention of a ritual in which the Agojies, led by Ghezo, would sacrifice a significant number of people in order to increase their prosperity and power. The mid-credit scene of the film, in my perspective, embodies that ritual in a more positive and heroic way when Amenza is praying for the spiritual closure of the deceased soldiers. Even before that, we saw Agojie soldiers offer their blood to a deity to have strength. “The Woman King” depicted all of these traditions in terms of bravery and emotional devotion, but in history, these rituals were terrifying and deadly. Eventually, in the 19th century, the Agojie troops started to diminish.
It’s safe to assume that the sequel to the film will be far bloodier. We have already witnessed that the fictitious story of the film has highlighted Dahomey’s anti-slavery stance and the defeat of the European slavers. So, keeping the writer’s creative freedom in mind, we hope to see Agojie’s war against slavery, the enhancement of their palm oil trade, and the terrifying war against these European slavers. Therefore, the remarkable rise of the Agojie and “The Woman King,” Nanisca’s kingdom, could account for a prominent theme in the sequels.