“Wow!” That was my initial reaction after seeing The Woman King. And on my fourth time viewing the film — still “Wow!” Director Gina Prince-Bythewood paints a gloriously textured portrait of the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the early 1820s. The king’s palace, the city market place, the dress and the customs of the people are all a treat to the eye, a view of African society rarely depicted in Hollywood movies.
And that isn’t the best part. It’s the action-packed story and the terrific cast, led by Viola Davis — one of the best actors of her generation. In The Woman King, she transforms herself into Nanisca, the fierce, battle-hardened general of the all-female regiment of soldiers, the Agojie.
A talented cast joins Davis. Lashana Lynch as Izogie and Sheila Atim as Amenza play Nanisca’s fearless and loyal captains. John Boyega embodies King Ghezo at the beginning of his reign. And Thuso Mbedu, as Nawi, a raw Agojie recruit, gives a powerful performance.
Epic action. Any good action movie opens with just that. Director Prince-Bythewood presents a beautifully choreographed battle scene between the Agojie women warriors and Oyo Empire forces who had raided Dahomey territory and taken captives. If the computer-generated imagery of super-hero movies is beginning to pall, the intricate stunt work of The Woman King is the perfect antidote. How does a smaller, slighter woman take down a large man in hand-to-hand combat? Months before and during the filming, stuntwoman chief Jenel Stevens with advanced martial arts skills, trained actors on just that.
The Woman King is being saluted as an historic, epic tale and its battle scenes are compared to Gladiator and Braveheart. Having seen and enjoyed all three, I find the fights in The Woman King the most authentic.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Nanisca defies her king and decides to go on a one-woman rescue mission when Nawi is captured and taken to be sold on the slave block. As Nanisca jogs along, she hears an echo behind her and turns to see her Agojie warriors and men from the Dahomey infantry following her. Sisterhood and brotherhood are powerful.
A word to the critics. The Woman King has been lambasted for not being historically accurate. Actually, films that are “historically accurate” are called documentaries. Why is The Woman King held to a higher standard than the ridiculously inaccurate Braveheart or Gladiator? Criticism of this film revolves around Dahomey being involved in the slave trade — as were most of the richer and powerful West African nations in those times.
This is not ignored or glossed over in the story; in fact, it is one of the main themes. General Nanisca urges her young king to stop dealing in the slave trade, but offer to trade palm oil with the Portuguese for the guns the Dahomey need to fight the Oyo. Indeed historically, the end of slavery was used by European imperialists as an excuse to conquer and colonize the African continent.
The heart of the matter. In the Benin Republic, once the Kingdom of Dahomey, stands a 98-foot-high statue of an Agojie warrior, a tribute and reminder that Africans resisted the slave trade and colonization. The Woman King fills the screen with vivid images unheard of by most non-Africans — images of Black women as warriors and defenders of their people.
The Woman King is a movie with a Black woman director, a predominantly Black cast, and Black women heroes. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood bucked studio tradition by hiring women and people of color as the film’s department heads. It’s good to see. In the film industry. In Hollywood. In art. Let’s see more!
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