Viola Davis and Julius Tennon on ‘The Woman King’ boycott calls: They ‘have to take license’

The film is No. 1 at the box office despite backlash on social media regarding its historical context.

It has been quite the week for “The Woman King.” The highly anticipated historical film from Gina Prince-Bythewood is at the top of the box office, marking a major industry milestone for a Black female-led action film. While it has received rave reviews from critics and audiences alike, the film has also received backlash over its historical origins, particularly the depiction of the Kingdom of Dahomey. 

The film centers around female warriors, the Agojie, who fought to protect the Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. Through the performances from Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch and others, the film brings audiences not only thrilling action sequences, but grounded characters filled with heart and passion.

Yet, calls to boycott the boundary-breaking project began to pour in before its release because of the Kingdom of Dahomey’s history and direct involvement in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

THE WOMAN KING Special Screening At The National Museum Of African American History And Culture
Dwandalyn Reece, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Viola Davis, Shiela Amit, Cathy Shulman and Julius Tennon speak on Sept. 15, 2022 during a screening of “The Woman King” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Sony Pictures Entertainment)

As early as a month before its release, conversations surrounding the historical basis for the film were springing up online. Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted in August, “It will be interesting to see how a movie that seems to glorify the all-female military unit of the Dahomey deals with the fact that this kingdom derived its wealth from capturing Africans for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.”

Director Prince-Bythewood first responded to the backlash last week, telling IndieWire, “I learned early on you cannot win an argument on Twitter, and I know all of that is going to go away once they see the film.” In recent comments to Variety, Davis and Julius Tennon — her husband and producing partner who also appears in the film — shared Prince-Bythewood’s sentiments. 

“First of all, I agree with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s saying is you’re not going to win an argument on Twitter,” Davis told the outlet. “We entered the story where the kingdom was in flux, at a crossroads. They were looking to find some way to keep their civilization and kingdom alive. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that they were decimated. Most of the story is fictionalized. It has to be.”

The film does not completely shy away from the kingdom’s involvement in the slave trade. In fact, Davis’ character, Nanisca, specifically speaks out against it.

Tennon explained that a balance must be struck. “We are now what we call ‘edu-tainment.’ It’s history but we have to take license. We have to entertain people. If we just told a history lesson, which we very well could have, that would be a documentary,” he said.

“Unfortunately, people wouldn’t be in the theaters doing the same thing we saw this weekend. We didn’t want to shy away from the truth. The history is massive and there are truths on that that are there. If people want to learn more, they can investigate more.”

“The Woman King” is currently in theaters.

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