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How the Woman King is Changing the Period Coins Game

The following contains spoilers for The Woman King, which is currently playing in theaters.

The female kingThe explosive final act of ends on a powerful note: Dahomey general Nanisca (Viola Davis), her daughter Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) and her right-hand man Amenza (Sheila Atim) gaze triumphantly at the burnt-out port city where they had recently liberated enslaved Africans awaiting transport to the Americas as the last of the European ships pulls away. Their faces are proud, and their victory in freeing the enslaved men and women compels their King Ghezo (John Boyega) to end Dahomey’s participation in the Atlantic slave trade. But the story of the real warriors of Dahomey, the Agojie, shown in The female king is distinctly different from that of other historical epics and period pieces whose legacy it follows.

Online reviewers have often compared The female king to movies Gladiator and Brave heart, citing the similarities between an oppressed warrior hero leading his people against a much stronger force wishing to enslave or annihilate them. And while these films shaped the historical epic genre as we know it – with the aforementioned underdog hero and massive battle sequences set in an old-time warrior culture – they tend to represent only Eurocentric stories. Even period films about black people like green paper and 12 years of slavery tend to have white savior narratives and centralize whiteness, which is why the lack of European characters in The female king is so revolutionary for the genre: for once, African characters can shine and tell their own story of agency and freedom.

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The historical film in Hollywood

There’s no shortage of period films or historical epics in Hollywood, and they’ve been mainstays of the industry since its birth in the silent movie era. The ten Commandments, Ben Hur and Lawrence of Arabia were considered the most successful films of their time, the grandeur of their historical and biblical stories undoubtedly adding to their popularity. Later there was The Patriot and Brave heart, The Last of the Mohicans and dance with wolves — and while they’re not historically accurate, they’ve had a profound impact on the genre and on Hollywood. The historical epic is made to inspire and add scale to a particular moment in history, or to tell a compelling story about the impact of a remarkable individual (usually a man) on history.

But the common thread of the historical film genre in Hollywood is that the films are so Eurocentric. This is not meant to discredit historical films made in other countries about their own people and history, but Hollywood films get the most exposure globally and determine which stories are told and seen. What Hollywood’s fixation on telling these Eurocentric stories about predominantly white, upper-class individuals—whether historical or fictional figures—implies, however, is that they are the only stories valid history.

In recent years, black-centric period films have been on the rise. The miniseries Roots was making waves in the 1970s with his depiction of the slavery system in the American South and his recent biopics 42, hidden numbers and BlackKklansman attempted to represent black stories in Hollywood with the respect they deserve. green paper was part of that wave, but was criticized for its white savior narrative – which many of its critics have found particularly egregious since winning the Best Picture Oscar. The more they fall also received negative press for its colorist casting of a dark-skinned historical woman with a light-skinned actress. But even then, the historical epic hasn’t often featured a protagonist of color, let alone a woman in the lead role, which makes The female king and its star-studded cast so impactful on the genre as a whole.

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How The Woman King reinvents the historical genre

In The female king, the struggle is not just between the Kingdom of Dahomey and the Empire of Oyo who would have (and would have, the film tells the audience) enslaved their people in battle, but between Dahomey and the Europeans. The film – set in 1823 in present-day Benin – interrogates and highlights the fact that African tribes participated in the slave trade, making it the very thing Dahomey are united against. The movie could easily have centered around a European antagonist – and there’s a French slaver character who makes appearances on several occasions, even asking Ghezo if he’ll send POWs for sale since it’s a business rich – but The female king instead focuses on how the Dahomey themselves were complicit in the trade in a much more engaging narrative of self-liberation.

The female king finds its warrior hero in Nanisca, and the entire trajectory of the film is shaped by her and her relationship with young potential Agojie Nawi, who, in a revelation of Shakespearean or Sopholean proportions, turns out to be the girl she quit years ago. When Nanisca opens Nawi’s arm to reveal the tip of the shark’s tooth she buried in the girl’s arm as a baby, the film’s emotional stakes change completely. While secret parentage is often a trope in historical films and classic plays, Nawi being kidnapped and enslaved makes it Nanisca’s mission to rescue her and the other captured Agojie – including Izogie from Lashana Lynch. – all the more personal; she becomes a woman who not only fights to free innocent people from slavery, but also for her own daughter.

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Centering black women as the unequivocal heroines of The female king, and showing Manisca becoming a real king of Dahomey in politics and on the battlefield, is rare for a historical film. While fictional media has never shied away from seeing all-female warriors like the Amazons of wonder woman and the Dora Milaje of Black Panther, the historical genre had no equivalent until The female king. By focusing solely on Eurocentric stories, Hollywood missed out on Agojie’s sheer cinematic genius. Where men have long been the subjects of historical epic, The female king amplifies the unique role played by the Agojie in Africa and in their kingdom of Dahomey. Their rituals, training and brotherhood are presented with all the drama and heroism that audiences would expect from an elite group of soldiers like Sparta’s famous 300.

To elevate Manisca and Agojie into the annals of the big screen by The female king shows a powerful shift from male-directed genres of historical films and Eurocentric period pieces to genres that center women of color as their own liberators and protectors. The enslaved people the Agojie liberate in the vast final act, where they burn down the port city and exact revenge on their slavers, show their unprecedented triumph over oppression – without the help of a well-meaning white savior. They do so on their own merit and by their own choice in a story that suggests that without the strength, power and agency of black women, they would never have been liberated.

You can see Agojie and Manisca’s fight in all their glory in The Woman King, playing exclusively in theaters.