Warning! SPOILER for The Woman King The Woman King mixes true story and fiction to carve out an epic story about an all-female warrior group called Agojie. Many historical films necessarily take creative liberties with real events to enhance the story for the screen. However, The Woman King’s excellent cast does well to bring the fictional and real characters of the Dahomey kingdom to life.
The film stars Viola Davis as General Nanisca, leader of the Agojie and a central character in the film. Nanisca becomes interested in a young woman named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) after encouraging her and other formerly captive women to join their ranks. The Agojie serve under King Ghezo, played by John Boyega, known internationally for the role of Finn, introduced in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Along with a memorable cast of characters, the film features some stunning fight sequences that highlight the intense training routine of The Woman King cast. Viola Davis channels her inner Amanda Waller during this role, showing a scary and cold side of her leadership skills.
While The Woman King’s expansive story is true, the explicit details within the film are where the liberties are taken. The events of the film take place in 1823, when under King Ghezo, Dahomey is attempting to free himself from his duties as a tributary of the Oyo empire. This part is genuine. The real King Ghezo successfully severed his ties with Dahomey’s rival in the year depicted in the film. However, Viola Davis’s character, General Nanisca, is fictionalized for the film and her position on the slave trade was probably not shared by the real Agojie generals of that period. By her proxy, her protege and warrior-in-training Nawi is also a fictional character, although she and Nanisca share their names with the real Agojie.
The real Agojie explained
The fierce warriors shown in the film, such as Sheila Atim’s Amenza, are based on an entire female-only military regiment. The origins of the Agojie date back to at least the beginning of the 18th century, but many believe that they formed earlier. King Houegbadja, a 17th-century king of Dahomey, was thought to have rounded up a group of elephant hunters to fight for the country. However, a later rule of the Dahomey is credited with establishing the Agojie as a royal guard. Similar to the depiction of the film, the Agojie became famous under the authority of King Ghezo, earning the nickname “The Dahomey Amazons” from Western Europeans. Historians theorize that the use of a large female militia was due to their prowess in battle and heavy male casualties from ongoing wars. Under King Ghezo (played by John Boyega), their numbers grew from hundreds to thousands.
The Agojie were unique among most of the West African kingdoms. They also trained in peacetime and wore uniforms to stand out. As shown in The Woman King, the Agojie obtained their recruits through volunteers, former slaves, women who refused to marry, and orphans. The Agojie lived a somewhat privileged lifestyle, living on the king’s lavish grounds, having access to tobacco and alcohol, and even having their own servants.
The real Agojie was allowed to marry
Another aspect that the film does well is Agojie’s promise not to marry and the vow of celibacy. The film excludes that the Dahomey Amazons are regarded as a formality as the king’s wives. They usually don’t share her bed or give birth to her children. Towards the end of The Woman King, Nawi begins a love interest in a partly Dahomey and partly Brazilian man named Malik. The romance is short-lived, but Nanisca constantly berates Nawi for breaking the rules. The film suggests that, for Nanisca, the celibacy rule is about more than tradition, but it’s partly due to her traumatic past. It is not known if a romantic date like Nawi’s could have occurred. The real Agojie warriors were very strict about their beliefs, although it is documented that many of the women had relationships with each other.
Nanisca and Nawi weren’t real people (but they were based on them)
The main characters, Nanisca and Nawi, are not real, but they share names with the documented recruits of the Agojie. A French naval officer spotted a young girl named Nanisca, making her first kill in a gruesome tale. The Woman King will likely be September’s biggest theatrical release, but it doesn’t describe the depth of brutality Agojie actually displays in real life. The naval officer describes the teenager Nanisca who beheads a person reduced to slavery without hesitation. Nanisca in the film was sometimes a cold and brutal general, but deep down he was compassionate and empathetic. This varies slightly from the generals known in Dahomey history who participated in and facilitated the slave trade.
Nawi is vaguely inspired by the last surviving Agojie warrior, who was interviewed in 1978. The real Nawi would not have been alive during King Ghezo’s reign as he claimed to have fought in the Second Franco-Dahomean War in 1892. In The Woman King , Nawi was 19 when she joined the Agojie, but they actually recruited much younger girls, some as young as eight.
The real kingdom of Dahomey was much more brutal
Not all Agojie were as carefree as Izogie, played by Lashana Lynch (No Time to Die). The film portrayed her warriors as protectors, but in reality they were also conquerors. The conquest of Dahomey can be considered somewhat evil, by conquering neighboring African states and taking their citizens. It was often customary for their soldiers to return with the heads and genitals of their victims. The Agojie also allegedly burned villages during their raids. There are reports of a violent annual religious ceremony known as the Annual Customs of Dahomey. During these ceremonies, the Dahomey people conducted large-scale human sacrifices, reportedly ranging from hundreds to thousands.
Dahomey’s wealth was mainly due to the slave trade, which is partially represented in the film. The Woman King shows a conflicting nation that wanted to stop trading, which is inaccurate. Director of The Old Guard, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s vision of Dahomey is far more heroic than most historical representations. The Dahomey stopped the slave trade at the urging of the British much later in the film’s timeline, but it didn’t last long as the kingdom’s wealth began to decline.
What happened to Agojie
Dahomey’s military prowess began to decline towards the end of the 19th century. Dahomey suffered many Agojie casualties for their inability to defeat the Egba, a neighboring nation. This failure severely weakened them in future battles with France. The Agojis fought in two Franco-Dahomean wars in the 1890s which eventually saw the dissolution of Dahomey in 1904. Altogether, the Agojie spanned nearly 200 years and produced thousands of ferocious female warriors who protected and expanded the great African kingdom.
Although Agojie are gone, they have inspired pop culture, most notably Black Panther’s Dora Milaje. The Woman King offers an emotional and triumphant look at a mighty army of women. Although some of the film’s claims are fictional accounts of the story, it’s good to bring the kingdom of Dahomey to audiences who may not have been familiar with the former African nation.