Historical drama The Woman King, starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, John Boyega, Shelia Atim, and Lashana Lynch takes us into an epic portion of history that many, specifically those in the US, are largely unfamiliar with. The film is about the Agojie (whom colonists called the Dahomey Amazons), an all-woman warrior army in the Kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) during the 1800s. They were known among many African nations for their bloody fierceness as they dedicated their lives to serving the king and protecting their people at all costs. The Woman King brings this fascinating story to life in a stunning and heartbreaking narrative that parses through facing the repercussions of slavery, eschewing societal expectations and norms, choosing self-preservation, enacting vengeance, and forming an unbreakable sisterhood.
The Woman King depicts the Agojie women through several lenses, including General Nanisca (Davis), Izogie (Lynch), Amenza (Atim), and Nawi (Mbedu), a stubborn yet valiant trainee who wants to prove herself worthy of this collective. Nanisca is the seemingly unflappable Agojie leader and skilled fighter whose opinions and thoughts are respected and valued by not only her sisters but also King Ghezo (Boyega). When she speaks, it is always with purpose and strategy.
However, The Woman King allows Davis to once again affirm that she’s one of the greatest thespians of all-time. She peels back Nanisca’s many layers with expert execution. We witness her digging into the character’s story of surviving unthinkable pain and crushing choices as well as her unexpected reconciliation with her past as she grapples with trauma. She’s vulnerable, powerful, wise, and as much an agent of change as she is someone who subscribes to certain traditions.
Nanisca masks this undercurrent of instability under an external shell that radiates power and a determination to change what’s become the status quo. Thankfully, The Woman King doesn’t go the route of making her the lonely, tortured soul. Nor does it turn her into the borderline tyrant with nearly unchecked and detrimental leadership decisions. Amenza acts as her confidant, friend, and a place where she can be her authentic self. It’s a loving, honest bond that further humanizes her. And, it is quite refreshing to see Davis as an action star alongside women of various ages and body shapes.
In contrast Izogie, while a demanding and stringent trainer, outwardly leans more into the compassion and wit that the Agojie share among themselves. Her master-disciple relationship with Nawi, who has been rejected in various fashions throughout her life, is incredibly touching. Their bond is an essential foundation to this narrative.
And, make no mistake, this film keeps majority of its focus right where it should be: on the Agojie themselves. It leaves you feeling like you have a holistic view of these women, from their place in Dahomey to their interpersonal relationships. There are few men who play a significant role, including Boyega’s somewhat amendable/actually likeable Ghezo, antagonist Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), and Malik (Jordan Bolger). But their stories rightfully come secondary (and even tertiary) to the women. Love to see it.
The Agojie sit at an intriguing intersection of womanhood with elements that are both familiar and foreign to many women today. It’s one that allows them to be heard, seen, and to simply exist as humans. For them, the possibility of dying on a battlefield is better than being property for acquisition/trade (via slavery, marriage, etc.) with whom a man can do as his pleases. However, it does come at a cost: they cannot marry/have sexual encounters nor have children. For many of them, like Izogie, this tradeoff is mostly inconsequential.
But, the real loss for the Agojie is a piece of their humanity. There is no room for tears nor volatile emotions. They must follow orders, serve King Ghezo, and protect their nation. Their individual desires and wants can never conflict with their mission. And that’s the part that Nawi (with an electrifying performance by Mbedu) challenges in such a beautiful way. She makes others question and redefine what it means to lead, to defend, and to wield power.
Life has seemingly primed her to be an Agojie. But, like many young warriors, she has lessons to learn along the way. It seems Nanisca and Nawi’s relationship is crystal clear with the younger warrior being a mirror to her older leader; however, it is quite complex. From watching the women tear through enemies with in a way that highlights their sheer physical skill and force, thanks to the brilliant directorial eye of Gina Prince-Bythewood, to quiet conversations and acts of intimacy and care, this depiction of the Agojie is far better than the crude way they are documented by European historians. They are divinely human with a found family that is unbreakable by any outsider. The Agojie incessantly choose each other and stand together in the midst of heartbreak, secrets, revelations, and obstacles. That is Black sisterhood at its finest.
The Woman King has much working to its favor in addition to the Agojie and stellar performances all-around. Cinematographer Polly Morgan crafts some truly stunning visuals worthy of these characters and their beautiful nation. The action sequences are fantastic and the balance between emotional beats and moments of levity work well. The film also doesn’t shy away from some African nations’ culpability in the Atlantic slave trade. And whoo are there some delicious moments of vengeance and triumph. However, it is clear that some elements of this story get the ever-present “Hollywood eye” filter.
Several turns of events are clearly for striking certain emotional nerves and tying up strings with a pretty bow. (Does the ending still make me want to cheer for certain characters? Absolutely.) Of course, a historical film will always take some creative liberties to appease audiences. But hopefully this story will encourage audiences to dig into the much more complex (and quite fascinating) real-life story of the Kingdom of Dahomey.
There’s also the perplexing need to shoehorn in a heterosexual “forbidden” relationship between two characters. The male character doesn’t chew up a ton of screen time. However, that storyline gives him a little too much needless involvement in the third act. His big revelation frankly doesn’t matter in the film’s larger scope. If anything, it would have been quite rich to explicitly explore a relationship between two Agojie. This would have checked that same forbidden box while also affirming what happened in real-life between some of these women. Finding the balance of having romantic love while also being a part of this tight-knit group would have been quite the journey.
Hopefully, The Woman King will be a catalyst to continue to dig into these interesting and (for some) hidden global stories. It takes a nation and its people and brings them to life with dignity, respect, and reverence. All hail the mighty Agojie and the woman king.
The Woman King will hit theaters on September 16.