Set in 19th Century West Africa, The Woman King feels as landmark as 2018’s Black Panther when it comes to representation. While that Marvel superhero entry was a significant moment in Black culture, this historical action drama carries similar weight. It’s a largely fictionalised story of the Agojie, an all-female group of warriors formed to protect the Dahomey Kingdom – what is now Benin. But just as vitally, it’s also a cracking good yarn.
The “bloodiest bitches in Africa”, as one colonial disparagingly calls them, these highly trained women will stop at nothing to guard their kingdom and its ruler, King Ghezo (John Boyega). Early on, we see an endurance test as two of the Agojie square off against each other. Held between them is a stick, with a spearhead at both ends pressing into their torsos. The first to relent loses, as the blood starts seeping from their flesh. It’s a grim detail, but proof of their commitment to the cause.
Leading the Agojie is the battle-hardened Nanisca (Viola Davis), a woman whose bravery is only matched by her morality. She has no qualms about fighting her male counterparts from the rival Oyo Kingdom or provoking them with a very special delivery – a basket of severed heads. While Davis has always been capable of sternness – see her shouty Amanda Waller in the Suicide Squad films – this is another level. Lean and muscular, she scowls and prowls, sweat glinting off her skin.
Trauma hidden in Nanisca’s backstory will form part of the narrative, triggered when she faces an old enemy from the Oyo. She must also contend with 19-year-old Nawi (Thuso Mbedu, who came to prominence in Barry Jenkins’s Amazon Prime series, The Underground Railroad). Abandoned by her father, after she refused an arranged marriage, Nawi is dumped on the Agojie who recruit her and shape her into a warrior. At first she’s weak and unfit, but she is also determined. “You are powerful, more than you even know,” she is told by Nanisca’s able and wise deputy Izogie (Lashana Lynch).
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Eventually, Nanisca and Nawi’s arcs will intertwine in ways that could be considered overly melodramatic or contrived - but then The Woman King is not a film that practises subtlety. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (who previously helmed The Old Guard, with Charlize Theron) conducts this film on the grandest of scales: the action is epic, the emotions are too. Like the bloodiest of Shakespearean plays, it’s a film that rarely pauses for breath, urged on by Terence Blanchard’s thundering score.
Scripted by Dana Stevens, from a story idea by actress Maria Bello, the film undoubtedly plays fast and loose with history. King Ghezo is the only true-life character in the story, the others all invented - but with so little recorded about the Agojie, that creative decision is understandable.
Already the film has been critiqued for somewhat glossing over the Dahomey’s involvement in selling its own people in the slave trade. Here, Nanisca is horrified by what she sees: “The white man has brought immorality here,” she cries.
Then again, The Woman King is not a film that sets out for documentary-like realism, but instead it craves to satisfy audiences with its bloodthirsty action scenes, as these female warriors slice and dice their way through their male opponents. It’s driven by some terrific performances, especially Davis and Mbedu, the latter just as formidable as her older co-stars. Moreover, as a film about empowerment and standing up to oppression, it refuses to be ignored. Expect cheering in the aisles and a rowdy reception; audiences are going to be whipped up into a frenzy with this.
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