One of the most fascinating yet unexplored epics in world history can be found in the ancient kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin), where the land was ruled and protected by a fierce group of women warriors called the Agojie for centuries. The rich saga of this powerful army will finally be revealed in new film The Woman King, which boasts a star-studded cast led by Viola Davis and a critically-acclaimed director in Gina Prince-Bythewood. The stakes are high for this project, and not just because Davis heads the talented ensemble. With a story this important to the culture, everything has to be done right — even down to the accents.
The recently released trailer for The Woman King sets the stage for the highly anticipated historical adventure, transporting audiences to a time and place where women, not men, took up sword and shield to serve as the protectors of their people. In the Prince-Bythewood-directed film, we discover the sheer force of the Agojie, an all-female militia that ruthlessly defended the West African kingdom of Dahomey from the 17th to the 19th century. Davis stars as Nanisca, the fearless general of the Agojie, who encounters the battle of her life when Europeans (likely British or French) approach their kingdom with colonial intentions. As a leader in this land, second in command only to King Ghezo (played by John Boyega), it’s Nanisca’s responsibility to rally her soldiers for what may be the most important fight they will ever have to face. Thankfully, no one is as strong as the Agojie. No one.
Because the history of the Dahomey and the Agojie has been left out of the general historical discourse, many people are reasonably excited about The Woman King. However, even as I’m brimming with excitement over the new film, I can't help but be somewhat cautious about what I’ll be getting into on September 19. When it comes to films about Africa and African people, Hollywood’s track record isn’t all that great; we’ve unfortunately gotten enough ahistorical plots, problematic stereotypes, and inaccurate accents that reduce the continent to a homogenous caricature to last us a lifetime. And while The Woman King seems to have placed a lot of care in its research and execution of the high points of Dahomey’s story — the kingdom’s troubling role in the European slave trade probably didn’t make the final cut of this script — the trailer hints that we just might be facing some of those same pitfalls, at least where the actors’ accents are concerned.
As Nanisca, Davis offers up most of the trailer’s limited dialogue, and what do we hear from her sounds…off. Of course, the Oscar-winner hails from South Carolina, not Benin, so we can’t reasonably expect one hundred percent accuracy, but there is something about her delivery of the lines that gives me pause. Like Forrest Whittaker’s infamous “strength of the Black Panther stripped away” line (Black Panther) to Will Smith’s viral “tell the truth” (Concussion), it does call back to the stock accent that Hollywood employs when denoting Africanness, regardless of where the character in question is supposed to be from. Even British-Nigerian Boyega doesn’t sound quite right. Dahomey may be a fallen kingdom, Benin is not Nigeria or Wakanda, so the intonation in this film should be distinct from others. Africa is not a monolith, and if representation matters, so should accuracy.
Benin is not Nigeria or Wakanda, so the intonation in this film should be distinct from others. Africa is not a monolith, and if representation matters, so should accuracy.
Nonetheless, with the theatrical release of The Woman King months away, it’s far too early to measure the effectiveness of the productions’ dialect coaching. In the meantime, skeptics, historians, and fans alike can take comfort in knowing that Prince-Bythewood and Davis’ (who starred and produced the film) process in bringing this complicated history to life was extremely detailed and very intentional. From the purposeful casting of dark-skinned Black actresses (including names-to-watch like Underground Railroad’s Thuso Mbedu, No Time to Die’s Lashana Lynch, and Bruised’s Sheila Atim) to expertly choreographed and endlessly rehearsed fight scenes, the effort and heart that went into creating The Woman King can’t be understated. The film is a labor of love, as well as a necessary reminder that Black women have always been the fiercest protectors of our communities.
“It takes so long to get to a greenlight, especially to tell a story like this,” Prince-Bythewood told Vanity Fair in a joint interview with Davis ahead of the trailer drop. “There are so many hurdles—and the finish line keeps getting moved. I just kept picturing the first time I would be on set, and say ‘action, and look around and be surrounded by us. I held that thought with me until it happened.”
“I’ve never had a role like this before,” Davis added. “It’s transformative. And to be a producer on it, and to know that I had a hand in bringing it to fruition…. There’s always a vision you have for your career, but there are very few roles as an actress of colour. Dark skin with a wide nose and big lips. I’m just gonna continue to say it. Those stories are extraordinarily limited.”
The Woman King is set to hit theatres on September 19, and accents aside, the trailer promises a blockbuster that will be a unifying moment for Black women across the diaspora. Gina Prince-Bythewood, you’ve got my attention — and my ear.