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Is The Woman King based on a true story?

Viola Davis as Nanisca holding a torch in The Woman King
Viola Davis in The Woman King (Image credit: TriStar Pictures)

A quick glance at the movie posters and key art for The Woman King reveal that it's "based on true events." Even with that said, by the end, viewers may be left wondering what was factual in the film and what was created for dramatic effect. 

For example, are the characters based on real people? Also, what was the Oyo Empire and was it really that dedicated to dealing in the slave trade? While those are very good questions to consider, perhaps the one on many people’s minds is what happened to the Agojie and the Kingdom of Dahomey? 

To help put an end to some of the lingering curiosity, here’s everything we know about the real story behind The Woman King.  

Were characters in The Woman King based on real people? 

Viola Davis and John Boyega sitting alongside one another in The Woman King film

Viola Davis and John Boyega in The Woman King (Image credit: Ilze Kitshoff/Sony Pictures Entertainment)

While The Woman King is filled with remarkable characters and narratives, unfortunately it looks like most of the onscreen personas were fictional. There are a few exceptions, but even these aren’t necessarily mirror images of their real-life counterparts.  

Let’s take Viola’ Davis’ Nanisca. According to the Smithsonian Magazine (opens in new tab), records show there was a member of the Agojie named Nanisca, but she wasn’t like Davis’ portrayal. 

The publication shares the story of French naval officer Jean Bayol in 1889 witnessing a teenage Nanisca go through a test of wills. He describes that she "calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunk. … She then squeezed the blood off her weapon and swallowed it." Bayol would later report seeing her as a casualty of the First Franco-Dahomean War in 1890. Davis' version of Nanisca, therefore, is greatly reimagined. 

Then there’s the character of Nawi played by Thuso Mbedu. There are historical records of a Nawi in the Agojie, but she wasn’t a soldier during the colonial era depicted in the film. Interestingly enough, according to the Smithsonian, the real Nawi was the "last known surviving Agojie with battlefield experience" and died when she was well over 100 years old in 1979. 

When it comes to The Woman King, the character that most resembled the historical figure he was playing was John Boyega as King Ghezo. The real King Ghezo ruled Dahomey from 1818 to 1858 and did rise to power as a result of a coup, ridding the throne of his older brother, Adandozan. As reported in The African Studies Review (opens in new tab) published by Cambridge University Press, before being dethroned, Adandozan was an "unpopular monarch, a chronic drunkard, extremely and capriciously cruel" among other things. So Ghezo assuming the throne was rather welcomed by many at the time. Additionally, King Ghezo is credited with ending the tributary status of the Dahomey people to the Oyo Empire, which the movie also depicts.

Where is the kingdom of Dahomey? 

The kingdom of Dahomey was located in what is now the Republic of Benin in West Africa. As seen in the map below, it’s situated between Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Togo. It also borders the Gold of Guinea, which dumps into the Atlantic Ocean. According to The World Bank (opens in new tab) in 2021, the country recorded a population of nearly 12.5 million people.  

Political map of Africa

Political map of Africa (Image credit: Getty Images)

What happened to the kingdom of Dahomey? 

The Abojie warriors looking in the horizon in The Woman King

The Woman King (Image credit: TriStar Pictures)

Simply stated, colonialism happened to Dahomey. Referring to the previously mentioned Smithsonian Magazine article, by 1851, under King Ghezo’s rule, the kingdom was at war with neighboring nation Egba, who by then settled into territory formerly possessed by the Oyo Empire. Egba dealt Dahomey some mighty blows, even killing 2,000 Agojie. When the king’s son Glele assumed the throne, the newly installed monarch continued battling with the country.  By the time France started colonizing the area, Dahomey found itself outmatched. 

Through the course of the First Franco-Dahomean War and the Second Franco-Dahomean War, the people of Dahomey were simply overpowered by the French. By the early 1900s, the kingdom had become a French colony and wouldn’t become independent of the European nation until 1960. As of 1991, the region took on the name the Republic of Benin. 

What was the Oyo Empire?

A lot has been said of the Oyo Empire, so let’s discuss it. The former kingdom has its roots in the region of southwestern Nigeria and existed from roughly 1400 to the 1830s, as reported by Harvard (opens in new tab). Through the Atlantic slave trade, the empire really grew in prominence and wealth. According to an article published by the University of Colorado Boulder (opens in new tab), the Oyo Empire has been credited with assisting in the enslavement of more than 128,000 African people, who were largely sent to Brazil and Cuba. 

In terms of The Woman King film, viewers got to see the group’s role in the slave trade. The audience also got to see much being discussed about Dahomey having to pay tribute to the Oyo. Well, Dahomey was forced into this tributary arrangement by the Oyo Empire around 1748 simply because Dahomey was in no position to fight back at the time. As discussed in The African Studies Review, the annual tribute set at that time was "41 men, 41 virgins, 41 guns, 400 bags of cowries and 400 corals." While we can’t say if the tribute demands were raised in the years preceding, we can say they ceased by 1818.

Who were the Agojie and do they still exist today? 

Viola Davis as General Nanisca leading the Agojie in The Woman King

The Agojie in The Woman King (Image credit: Sony)

Like in The Woman King, the Agojie, also known as the Dahomey Amazons, were an elite group of warriors in the Kingdom of Dahomey. Smithsonian Magazine (opens in new tab) marks that the earliest English-language study of them dates back to the 17th century. It's theorized they came to be the military force behind the palace guard in the 1720s. 

What was interesting in the movie is that it was expressly mentioned that the women that served as Agojie were not to take any husbands. Historically, this was very true as the warriors were technically considered to be married to the ruling king. 

When it comes to King Ghezo’s time ruling Dahomey, the magazine states that British explorer Sir Richard Burton once described his encounter witnessing the Agojie and the king, and recorded seeing female troops live in King Ghezo’s compound and being kept "well supplied with tobacco, alcohol and slaves — as many as 50 to each warrior." 

As it pertains to the training viewers saw Nawi and the other recruits go through on screen, it appears the reality was much more strenuous. During training, they had to scale vicious thorn hedges, wrestle one another, survive up to nine days in the forest with minimal rations and endure insensitivity instruction to prepare them to handle seeing the gruesome aspects of battle. 

But do the Agojie still exist? 

In short, no. 

It appears the Second Franco-Dahomean War and subsequent French colonization of the area really did a number in dissolving the Agojie warrior culture. However, their spirit lives on in movies, even beyond The Woman King, as they serve as the inspiration for the Black Panther’s Dora Milaje. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Dahomey and the Agojie, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever actress Luptia Nyong'o stars in a documentary on the Smithsonian Channel (opens in new tab) discussing both. Those in the UK can watch the documentary via Channel 4 (opens in new tab).  

By the way, check out WTW's The Woman King review and see how out it stacks up against other 2022 movie releases

Terrell Smith has a diverse writing background having penned material for a wide array of clients including the federal government and Bravo television personalities.  When he’s not writing as Terrell, he’s writing under his pseudonym Tavion Scott, creating scripts for his audio drama podcasts. Terrell is a huge fan of great storytelling when it comes to television and film. Some of his favorite shows include The CrownWandaVision, Abbot Elementary and Godfather of HarlemAnd a fun fact is he's completely dialed into the TLC 90 Day Fiancé universe.