To expand upon my quick thoughts in the video, The Woman King is a historical epic directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) from a screenplay written by Dana Stevens (The Nightingale). Featuring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and John Boyega. Set in the 1820s, the story follows Nanisca, the general of the Agojie, an all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey as she trains the next generation of warriors.
In an Oyo Empire village, a group of men sit around a fire. They hear a noise in the distance and go to check on it. The Agojie, led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), appears from the tall grass and begins attacking the men. After a brutal battle, Nanisca asks where they are keeping their captives. The man lies claiming they are simple farmers until her lieutenant Amenza (Sheila Atim) locates the prisoners in a tent. Nanisca kills the man and the Agojie free their imprisoned people and enslaves the enemy soldiers that are left.
In the kingdom of Dahomey, a young girl named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) shops in the market with her friend. To Nawi’s surprise, the local dressmaker tells her that she has been arranged to be married and wished to be the one chosen to make her wedding dress. As she continues talking the Agojie arrive in the kingdom. All the villagers line up and cheer as they enter but do not look upon them as it is not allowed by the declaration of the king. A young boy decides to peek through his fingers and is greeted by the fierce warrior Izogie (Lashana Lynch) who smiles at him. Nawi is also curious and watches them as they head toward the palace.
Rarely do we see Black people in historical epics as kings and warriors. Usually, they are depicted as slaves or servants. It’s a nice change to see Black people portrayed with such distinction, especially in their home continent of Africa. Learning about the slave trade in school we were never taught that there were kingdoms in Africa or what kind of wealth the nations had. The lessons were basically about how White people came and took slaves all around the world. It was only after watching Roots that I realized Black people also sold their own into slavery. Although this story is fictional I feel that it taught me more about Africa’s role in the slave trade than anything I learned in school and that’s saying something.
Not only do we see the politics of Dahomey and their role in capturing and selling slaves, but we also learn about the culture and traditions of the kingdom. The title of the Woman King is a part of their culture and not some pseudo-gender equality title to make people upset. Seeing the revered Agojie in action was great, knowing they are what inspired the Dora Milaje, warriors, and bodyguards of the Marvel Comics character Black Panther. Their style of combat makes use of the palm oil they trade. Rubbing their bodies in the oil makes them hard for their enemies to grasp them in battle. They also make use of many different types of weapons from, spears to swords to guns. They are also similar to Jedi or more realistically nuns as they swear their allegiance to the king and do not take husbands as the attachment to family does not help them as warriors.
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film resume is not extensive but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. The Woman King continues the trend and might just be her best-made film to date. The performances she pulls from her actors are worthy of note. Viola Davis is phenomenal as General Nanisca. Her strength and leadership rival that of any male action hero. Davis also looks to have buffed up for the film sporting a more muscular frame than she usually has in films. She is supported greatly by Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, and Sheila Atim whose interactions make for a familial atmosphere. Even those with smaller roles feel as important as the main characters. John Boyega’s King Ghezo is not in the film much, but his role is just as meaningful and well-performed as if he were the star. Unsurprisingly there is not a White face until about 40 minutes into the film and even then they are only on film sparingly.
Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part II) does a great job of capturing the beauty of Africa. From the fields of palm trees to the extensive coastline. Morgan also does a great job of capturing the different darker complexions in all kinds of lighting. All characters are well-lit no matter the time of day. Another thing great about all the characters is the costume design by Gersha Phillips (Black Nativity) and the hair and makeup department. They do a splendid job outfitting the different tribes and showing how distinct they are from one another. I was a little jealous seeing how far we have fallen in terms of fashion as the regal and unique look of everyones clothing made me long to dress like them.
This film has something for everybody. It’s a history lesson, a love story, a coming-of-age tale, and a warrior epic all rolled into one. The story is endearing and not overbearing or preachy. I give The Woman King an Excellent 9.2/10. Even though it’s a fictional account, it is based on real people and hopefully will encourage viewers to look up the history of the Agojie, Dahomey, and the rest of Africa. It would be great to see Hollywood produce more Black-directed and Black-led films like this moving forward.