‘The Woman King’ Is a Historical Projection of Black Sisterhood
When director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, was tapped to direct The Woman King, back in 2020, the general conversation was whether she would be able to pull off a big-budget action film. She is best known for her romantic and character-driven films like Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights. She tapped into her action side with Netflix’s The Old Guard and transformed lead actress, Charlize Theron into a gritty female killing machine. Her resume in the action genre, when compared to other directors is not that extensive, but it works because she has done a lot of underground directing for Marvel shows like the short-lived Cloak and Dagger and Silver and Black, which is a Spiderman spin-off that never saw the light of day.
A year and a half of her life was dedicated to those projects, and it gave her the needed experience to direct a film about the female warriors, known as Agojie, who were the go-to military force of the West African kingdom of Dahomey. The story is written by actress turned screenwriter Maria Bello who, after visiting Benin and learning about the Agojie, decided that their rich history needed a global audience. She and producer, Cathy Schulman pitched the story to several Hollywood Studios in 2015 but it got turned down due to financial concerns. However, when they got Davis on board to produce and star in the film, it was given the go-ahead by TriStar Pictures in 2020 and production began in 2021.
For a film like The Woman King to be successful at the box office, it needs to be historically accurate. The slogan that is sold to Hollywood-epic audiences is that what is depicted onscreen is “based on true events” and the product definitely matches the description. Not only does Prince-Bythewood perfectly capture the scenic African beauty of 17th century Dahomey, but she also aptly tells the story of the Agojie according to how it is said by oral traditions. The female warriors were allowed to take part in the King’s Court and offer advice to the king and this is seen severally when General Nanisca (Davis) continually advices King Ghezo (Boyega) to take a different path instead of trading slaves for peace and commodities. The women were also trained to the point of death and much of the first half of the film is dedicated to the rigorous exercises they partake in like destabilizing an opponent with a rope and walking through thorns till your skin bleeds. Nanisca reminds the women that “we fight or we die” and that really is the general motto of the warriors because historically, in the Franco-Dahomean Wars of the 19th century, a lot of them sacrificed their lives to the French military forces for the sake of the survival of their kingdom.
The Woman King starts with a dark thrill: a group of men encamp round a dark field that is illuminated only by a campfire. There is rustling in the background and a flock of birds fly away, heightening their uncertainty and anticipation. Suddenly, Nanisca and her troops appear from the tall grass, kill the enemy forces (men) and free their captured Dahomey kin. The battle sadly cost Nanisca a lot of warriors and riddled with guilt, she decides to train a fresh batch of warriors who would fight for the crown till their dying breath.
As expected, Davis gives a brilliant performance. She carefully plays the role of a military general who shields her kind and wounded heart with a hard exterior. A general is supposed to be tough and thorough and that is exactly how her character is. She rarely shows emotion as she carefully molds her new batch into Agojie and goes into warrior mode whenever the situation calls for it. Her final battle against the Abeokuta’s fierce leader, Oba Ade (Odukoya) is gripping, and it deserves an award on MTV for Best Fight.
Though Davis is the star of the show, other actresses are given their moment to shine. Mbedu plays a headstrong and tough-talking teenager, Nawi, whose mouth puts her at odds with Nanisca. Nawi is offered by her adoptive father as tribute to the King because she refuses to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather. Instead of becoming one of the King’s wives, she is approached by the witty and funny warrior Izogie (Lynch), who enlists her to train as an Agojie. Izogie becomes Nawi’s de facto mentor and the two form an inseparable bond. When that bond is cut short by Izogie’s death in the battle against the Portuguese slave traders and Abeokutas, Mbedu’s brilliance and talent shine through because her earth-shattering wails and screams are loud enough to wake up the dead. Her emotions as she holds the limp body in her arms could move even the coldest of hearts to tears and if there is ever an Oscar for “Best Emotive Performance,” she would win it.
The action scenes are raw and rough. Audiences are placed directly on the battlefield and all the five senses are put on overdrive. One can hear the crack of bones, the gnawing of flesh, the blade of a spear as it pierces into a back, the bullet of a gun as it ravishes at feet, and the agonizing groans of an injured warrior. What is so great about the fight scenes is that the Agojie are fighting with oiled bodies and crude implements like ropes and axes, but their enemies are using sophisticated weapons like guns. They are meant to be at a disadvantage, but they always come out victorious. Even when there are casualties (there are always casualties in battle), they mourn their fallen sisters and pray to the gods to take care of them.
Sisterhood is the elixir that makes the Dahomey Amazons (they were fondly called this by the Europeans) successful both on the battlefield and away from it. “The Woman King” is all about showcasing African women that are strong, powerful, and caring. Despite their skin tones (yes, there are a lot of shades of black in this film and it is always a joy to see representation on the big screen), backgrounds (born and bred Dahomeys and Dahomey captives), and differences, they fight for a common cause and each other. Their devotion to each other is just as strong as their devotion to their training and the booming chants they sing at the top of their lungs reinforce that devotion. It is a symbol that alive or fallen, an Agojie always has her fellow sisters’ back.
Prince-Bythewood did not completely leave her emotional and romantic roots. The great Nanisca with all her bravado has vulnerable moments and Davis aptly projects this to audiences as only she can. Nawi embarks on a risky romance journey with a lost son of the soil, Malik (Bolger) whose heart is purer than that of his slave trader friend, Santo Ferreira (Tiffin). Though their romance never blossomed into something more than tense moments and awkward abs-touching, it is a welcome distraction from the battle-heavy scenes that are filled with bloodied bodies and tattered scraps of clothing.
Boyega’s portrayal of King Ghezo, a young king who is trying to do right by his people, should be praised. He is the perfect combination of funny and level-head even in the face of opposition by the Abeokutas. Yes, it is true that Ghezo never did any of the heavy lifting himself and relied on others (the Agojie) to do his dirty work, but he is a present king. He is not a puppet who is pulled on the strings by a puppet master or a zombie that moves only when instructed to. His intellect is commendable and even when his decisions put him at odds with Nanisca, he stands ten toes behind them. Boyega, despite being British-born, nailed the African accent and in a recent interview with Men’s Health magazine, he revealed that his father influenced that. His parents are of Nigerian descent.
The film is solid in terms of scriptwriting, directing, cinematography, production, and casting. No one would be a better fit to play Nanisca than Davis who is an Emmy, Academy, and two-time Tony award winner. Accolades aside, she brings depth to a character that is forged from fire and it makes her more human than superhero. The other characters are given chances to tell their story, as sad as it may be, and it ties the entire plot together.
If Prince-Bythewood were to look back in ten years and reflect on the film that made her go, “I’ve made it in Hollywood” it would be this one. She has been working towards this crowning moment her entire life and it would not be surprising to see her get an Oscar nod for Best Director- a rarity in Hollywood as female directors are never given the much-needed spotlight.
Release Date: September 16, 2022
Run-time: 135 minutes
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Cast: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Jimmy Odukoya, Adrienne Warren and Jordan Bolger.