/ 5 October 2022

The Woman King delivers a brilliant African story unfettered by many tired tropes

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Set in 1823, the film stays far truer to the historic events that inspired it than many of the genre’s supposed classics. ILZE KITSHOFF/TRISTAR PICTURES

The Woman King (2022) is a brilliant film and as an African military historian, I cannot recommend it enough. As a work of history, it is almost unparalleled, narratively it is compelling, and as a depiction of Africa, it sets a solid foundation for more stories about powerful African queens and warriors. While a comic book movie like Black Panther may be fun fiction and draws inspiration from the Agojie of Dahomey, The Woman King confidently demonstrates the riches of real African history.

Set in 1823, the film hints at several important historical events of the era and honestly portrays many crucial debates and interpretations of African agency and warfare of the time. The film mentions an approximate 20-year rule by the Oyo Empire over the Kingdom of Dahomey. The war that brought that rule had important global consequences. A theme throughout the film is the slave trade and the selling of captives into slavery. Most often, said captives were defeated enemy soldiers, and the war between Oyo and Dahomey in the 1780-1790s led to many being sold as slaves. 

Many of these slaves were sold to the French to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean, especially on the island of Haiti. The military training of many of these slaves was pivotal in the success of the Haitian Revolution. The Oyo, as depicted in the film, were skilled cavalrymen and the Dahomey soldiers were trained in anti-cavalry tactics, which became invaluable skills in combating the militias and then armies sent by Europeans. 

Skilled commanders such as Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines were able to capitalise on the military training of these now-freed slaves to defend the revolution against all the greatest European armies of the time. 

A Portuguese-Brazilian captain is the film’s primary representative of the slave trade in the Americas, which is statistically accurate, as Brazil was the largest importer of slaves in the New World. There the military skills of enslaved soldiers also proved useful as runaway slaves formed their own communities – so termed Maroons – and soldiering skills were necessary to protect these communities. Some of these communities formed the basis for the later favelas outside major cities in Brazil. 

As much as I would like to see more films made about African (military) history, it would be idealistic to think that slavery doesn’t need to feature in all. This is because it was a constant force for about 300 years of African history. Even before the rise of the trans-Atlantic slave trader, which industrialised slavery, the capture of people was a common goal for much of African warfare. 

In comparison to the European way of war with a focus on capturing land or territory, land was rarely in short supply in Africa (Africa is still under-populated when compared to Europe, Asia and the Americas). Instead, the wealth gained from warfare in much of Africa across history was in the capture of people. In other words, human life was considered more valuable than land, which is not necessarily always a good thing. It should be noted that this was a general trend and not representative of all wars and states in Africa. 

The Kingdom of Dahomey had a complicated relationship with slavery, to say the least. Much of the wealth of the kingdom was tied to slavery, but then again, so were the economies of most world powers at the time and especially western European powers. Africans should be able to tell stories without having to foreground slavery every time. After all, it’s not like British literature of that time period treats slavery with equal consideration: Jane Austen makes nary a mention of slavery despite the importance of the issue in early 19th century Britain.

This film further demonstrates quite plainly that stories about African women do not need to be filtered through the lens or voices of others. In the past, producers may have been tempted to tell the story through the othering lens of a white man travelling to an exotic land to see and tell the story of “black Amazons”, always relating Africa and Africans to some Eurocentric clutch-point. While a white man does indeed travel to see the legendary warriors, the focus of the film is not on his narrative. 

Putting on my African military historian hat, I could quibble about the lack of non-firearm ranged weapons (such as archers, slingers et cetera) in the battle scenes, but this could distract from the more important depiction of muskets at the time. Muskets are present in the film because they were present in African military history for at least 250 years by the time of the film’s events. The earliest recorded use of firearms was the battle of Tondibi in 1591, in what is now Mali. The film, however, clearly demonstrates that while they were used, they were far from decisive in battle and hints at the reasons why. 

While the Oyo did have calvary, and they could be decisive in battles, the presence of the tsetse fly in West Africa (and much of sub-Saharan Africa) meant that horses could not be easily bred in the region. This meant that the large massed cavalry charges that characterised much of Eurasian warfare prior to World War I, could not happen in much of Africa. The result was that infantry tactics evolved quite differently. 

In Eurasian infantry, massed formations were used to counter cavalry charges, and later, these formations were used for mass volley fire of the inaccurate muskets. In Africa, however, the use of ranged archers was the large threat necessitating dispersed infantry formations, which then proved useful for diminishing the effectiveness of the volley fire of muskets. 

The role of firearms in the European colonisation of Africa is often greatly misrepresented as it was not until the invention of the Maxim gun and other machine guns in the late 1880-1890s that European firepower was finally able to break anti-colonial resistance. 

Western and non-African views of African warfare have routinely given undue importance to what is derisively termed “witchcraft”. Again, if this film was made a few years ago, there would have been a strong temptation to highlight this aspect. A sad trope throughout much of the writing on African military history has been on the role of traditional medicine and religion. They have been portrayed as bizarre, ridiculous and mysterious to serve as a convenient other to the supposed rationality of Eurocentric beliefs. 

A white Christian soldier wearing a religious medal of a saint and praying for protection in war is portrayed as solemn and rational, but an African warrior wearing an amulet from a traditional healer to protect against the power of bullets is shown to be irrational and absurd. In both instances, the effect is the same, with exactly the same amount of rational evidence.

Similarly, a final aspect of the film worth mentioning is the absence of the sexual fetishizing of the warriors. Throughout history, powerful women have often been reduced to sexual deviants as a means to explain away their power. Be it Cleopatra or Catherine the Great, their power and position has been undermined by resorting to absurd claims of sexuality. 

While The Woman King does not shy away from the likely consequences of capture, there are no bizarre fetishized claims made to undermine the agency of these women. In fact, what is so refreshing about this film is the honest and complex interpretations of agency for the women. 

Overall the film may have some deviations from historical accuracy, and may come across as revisionist in some aspects, but that happens with any story from history. The Woman King is not a documentary, it is a film inspired by real historical events. 

It is far more historically accurate than say Gladiator, Zulu or Fury, which all went on to win numerous awards and are viewed as classics of the genre. As a film about war, if not a war movie, The Woman King ought to stand proud and will no doubt be required viewing for many a film studies course. 

Dr Simon Taylor is an extraordinary researcher at North-West University and the founder of Ana Nzinga Research. He was formerly with the department of international relations and co-operation and holds a Master of Social Science in Psychology from the University of Cape Town and a PhD from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.