The Woman King
WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
In the 1800s, a group of all-female warriors protects the African kingdom of Dahomey with skills and fierceness, unlike anything the world has ever seen. Faced with a new threat, General Nanisca trains the next generation of recruits to fight against a foreign enemy that's determined to destroy their way of life.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
To say I was excited to watch this film is probably an understatement – it has some of my favourite actors, it has Black women in front and behind the camera, and it is based on real-life women warriors. I had never heard about the Kingdom of Dahomey or the Agojie before the film, and finding out that this unit inspired the Dora Milaje from Black Panther made me more enthusiastic.
When I finally sat in my seat at a press screening and the film started playing, I was surprised by the emotions the film evoked in me. To see a group of Black women look both badass and regal at the same time in a well-choreographed action stunt scene gave me goosebumps.
The film centres on General Nanisca (Viola Davis), the leader of the Agojie. The Kingdom of Dahomey is at a crossroads; Nanisca struggles with the moral consequences of the tribe's involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and tries to convince King Ghezo (John Boyega) that there are other ways for the tribe to amass wealth. The tribe's fierce rival will stop at nothing to bring down the Dahomey.
To prepare for the war to come, Nanisca, along with her right-hand women, Amenza (Sheila Atim) and Izogie (Lashana Lynch), train a crop of new recruits, which include some of the women from a village they raided and Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) a stubborn girl from the village who was given to the king by her father after she chased away the latest suitor. Outspoken and headstrong, Nawi struggles to fit in with the Agojie and finds a friend and mentor in Izogie.
While the Agojie are revered for their fighting prowess, they are still subjected to the patriarchal views and sexism in the society; by pledging their lives to their king, they can never be married, and they can never have children. If they do any of these, they are thrown out of the Agojie and have to return to 'normal life' disgraced. It's a stark contrast that while these women are the protectors of their tribe, their freedom is still limited.
Like the characters in all the great epic films the recruits undergo training and tests to prove they are worthy of joining the Agojie. In these scenes, we really get to know the characters, particularly Nawi. We also learn that both Nanisca and Izogie are carrying deep trauma. The characters are so beautifully written and fleshed out that by the time the Agojie go to battle, we care deeply for all of them and whether they will make it out alive.
I really appreciated the depth and multidimensional characters that were created. In an interview with News24, director Gina Prince-Bythewood said that she wanted humanity to be front and centre, the humanity of these women and the sisterhood. Prince-Bythewood successfully balanced the action scenes with some surprising plot twists and well-crafted character development.
When it comes to the acting, Viola Davis, Sheila Atim, and Lashana Lynch all deliver knock-out performances, but it really is Thuso Mbedu who steals the show. It's safe to say that Mbedu is becoming a force to be reckoned with, and in this film, she unlocked levels in her acting. Mbedu's strength comes from her eyes as she conveys anger, fear, fierceness, sadness and joy. These emotions filter down to the rest of her body, giving a physical performance (aside from the physical action scenes). It's like she puts her entire being into her acting, and it's remarkable to watch.
Since the film's release in the US earlier this month, there has been a lot of discourse about how the film approaches Dahomey's complicity in the slave trade. I don't necessarily think that they gloss over it; there is a considerable focus on it. However, this is a fictional account; it's not a documentary; as Davis told Variety, "most of the story is fictionalised. It has to be. 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." I think this is exactly how the film should be viewed, as a work of fiction, and perhaps it will open more doors for filmmakers to tell more diverse stories that examine historical themes.
For me, this film is a triumph to have Black women at the centre of a story that has never been told before. It's the type of film I wish my 10-year-old self could've experienced, to see that we can be strong and vulnerable and that we are enough. The Woman King can stand toe to toe with other great epic films; it is a must-see.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:
The Woman King is now showing in cinemas.