Is The Woman King a true story? Real history of Bafta-nominated film - where was the Dahomey Kingdom

Historical drama film The Woman King, starring Viola Davis, follows an all-female band of West African warriors from the early 19th century

The Woman King, an historical epic starring Oscar-winner Viola Davis, was nominated for two Bafta awards - Davis was nominated for Best Actress and Gina Prince-Bythewood was nominated for Best Director.

The film did not go on to win either award at Sunday night’s ceremony - in fact all of the 49 Bafta winners this year were white, sparking renewed debate over whether non-white actors are unfairly overlooked at prestigious award shows.

However, The Woman King also sparked controversy on its release last year due to the way that it represented the Atlantic Slave Trade in Africa, which saw roughly 12 million Africans trafficked as slaves.

The historical drama is set in 19th century West Africa during the last decades of the Atlantic Slave Trade and follows two states in conflict. The Woman King was written by NCIS and A History of Violence actress Maria Bello and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who received a Bafta nomination for the project.

Viola Davis has also been nominated for a Bafta in the Best Actress category - she will face stiff competition from the likes of Cate Blanchett in Tár and Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All At Once.

What is The Woman King about?

The Woman KIng takes place in the 1820s, and follows the Agojie, an all-female military group in the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey in southern Benin, on the West coast of Africa. Viola Davis, known for her roles in The Help and Fences, plays Nanisca, a general responsible for training the next generation of female recruits to fight rival tribes who pose a threat to their territory.

The Dahomey Kingdom is attacked by the Oyo Empire who abduct Dahomey people and sell them into slavery. Nanisca leads a major retaliation against the Oyo in an effort to subdue their enemy and rescue those who were taken captive.

Viola Davis in The Woman KingViola Davis in The Woman King
Viola Davis in The Woman King

Is The Woman King a true story?

The Woman King is based on real historical events - the Agojie were a real fighting unit who were instrumental in protecting the Kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most powerful African states at the time.

The character of Nanisca is not based on a real historical figure - though her name may have come from an account of a French naval officer who saw a young recruit called Nanisca during a visit to Dahomey. Additionally, Nanisca is presented as an anti-slavery leader in the film - but the Kingdom of Dahomey’s economy was built on slavery.

What was the Dahomey Kingdom?

The Kingdom of Dahomey was a territory in West Africa located in present day Benin - it was founded around 1600 and reduced to the status of a French colony in 1904. Dahomey was ruled over by successive kings, with King Ghezo, who features in The Woman King, ruling from 1818-1859.

During Ghezo’s rule he elevated the status of the Agojie and the warriors proved to be instrumental in defeating the kingdom’s enemy the Oyo Empire.

Ghezo also led strong resistance to British attempts to convert the population to Christianity. In the decades after Ghezo’s reign ended France went to war with Dahomey, defeating its army and reducing the kingdom to a French protectorate, and then a colony. It gained full independence as a republic in 1960 and was renamed the Republic of Benin in 1991.

A bronze statue of a Agojie warrior in BeninA bronze statue of a Agojie warrior in Benin
A bronze statue of a Agojie warrior in Benin

Why has The Woman King been criticised?

The Woman King has been criticised for glamourising the Kingdom of Dahomey and minimising its role in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Historically, the kingdom was heavily involved in the Slave Trade from as early at the 1600s, capturing West Africans and selling them to selling them to European traders on the coast.

Most captured slaves were sent abroad - mostly to the Americas - packed onto slave ships, where conditions were terrible and many died on route through neglect or outright violence from the ship’s crew. Some prisoners were enslaved within the kingdom itself and forced to work in the army or on royal farms.

Following the British abolition of slavery in 1833, the British pressured Dahomey to follow suit - king Ghezo signed a treaty banning the export of slaves in 1852, although the practice continued until the end of the decade.

What has Viola Davis said about The Woman King?

Davis told ITV News: "I feel like a lot of the backlash is from people who have not seen the film. I’ve been doing it for 33 years and this is the first time that all of the reactions are very very passionate. No-one has a lukewarm reaction to this movie.

“What I think they will all see is a movie that literally is going to shift the narrative for people of colour".

When is The Woman King release date?

The Woman King was released in cinemas in the UK on 4 October. It is currently not on any streaming platforms.

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