A kingdom in the 1800s with an army of women fighters protecting it sounds like fiction. But it is not. The Woman King documents the very real history of the Kingdom of Dahomey and the Agojie, a collective that incited fear among their enemies. The film stars Viola Davis as Nanisca, the warriors’ leader and trusted confidante of King Ghezo (John Boyega). Much of its story centers around her various relationships, including the one with Ghezo as well as two of her closest comrades—Izogie and Amenza—portrayed by Lashana Lynch and Shelia Atim, respectively. Nerdist chatted with the actors behind Nanisca’s main trio about their characters’ role in the woman king’s life.
Like any system, the Kingdom of Dahomey has its various social statuses. The Agojie are very high up on that ladder. So high, in fact, that they get to live within the palace walls. While they do serve the king, everyone recognizes they are a part of a system with different and vital roles.
“We all have our own levels of importance… without one, the other one isn’t able to function in the way that they need to, or isn’t able to make the correct decisions for the people,” says Lynch. “Izogie, for example, is the one that is to the side of Nanisca, but also in the back listening in to see what the leader needs. She’s ready to pounce whenever someone messes with her, constantly carrying her machete… It’s amazing that as individuals [the Agojie] were able to be such different things for her and also stretch her in different ways within the movie.”
Atim adds to Lynch’s point about Nanisca’s Agojie sisters being ride or die. In fact, Amenza’s relationship with Nanisca is perhaps the closest of them all. “Amenza has known Nanisca for a long time,” affirms Atim. “She’s her best friend. She’s also the female religious council to the king, as well. So she manages to weave these different aspects of herself to, again, be as great a support to Nanisca and to the whole army, actually, as she possibly can… there’s a symbiosis that is happening between any one person and another in this film. We cannot exist in isolation. I think that’s what’s really beautiful, showing that we need each other. We need each other to make decisions to prosper.”
Perhaps the most interesting dynamic is between King Ghezo and Nanisca. It’s expected that he would honor and trust her as a warrior. But, unlike majority of women during that time, Nanisca’s opinions on the Kingdom’s decisions are also important to this ruler.
“King Ghezo specifically had an ear for Nanisca,” says Boyega. “..he would half listen to everybody else, but when Nanisca speaks, he would listen with everything. That just speaks to how I feel about Viola Davis as a human being, as well as the character, that when she speaks, when she has a word to share, you are there dropping everything… [when] Nanisca has something to say, he holds onto that, but still has the conflict of, ‘I’ve still got to do that slightly toxic male ego stuff and show her that I’m king.’ That’s a balance that he continuously tries to deal with until [he’s] just got to surrender. This is where the good advice is coming from, and this is what’s nourishing you and the people that you lead.”
It takes a mighty woman to earn the profound respect and friendship of royalty and soldiers alike. And that’s why The Woman King puts Nanisca at the center of it all.
The Woman King will come to theaters on September 16.