Written by Dana Stevens and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Woman King follows the Agojie, an all-female warrior group led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis) as they train and fight to protect their land and their people. The film is set in Dahomey, the modern day Republic of Benin, during Europe’s colonisation of the African continent and the slave trade in the 1820s.
I’ll say right off the bat, I know there has been some scepticism about the film from a lot of black people because the Dahomey were active participants in the sale of Africans and from a lot of African people because ‘what’s Hollywood going to do with this African story?’ But, if you’re contemplating whether or not you should watch this film, do it!
Personally, I think the creators took such care in authentically portraying the world that they brought us into and the characters don’t feel like caricatures of Africans, as we’ve seen in the past. (It definitely helps that a lot of the actors are first/second generation African themselves). Viola Davis is obviously amazing in this role, she brings so much to whatever character she plays, and we already know that Lashana Lynch (who plays Izogie), Sheila Atim (who plays Amenza) and John Boyega (who plays King Ghezo) are all fantastic actors who absolutely held it down playing their characters. For me though, it was Thuso Mbedu (Nawi) who carried the film. She is so fantastic, going from strongheaded naïve trainee to strongheaded warrior that I’m legitimately excited to see Thuso continue to blow up in the industry. Also, I have to shoutout Jimmy Odukoya who plays Oba of the Oyo empire and made Nigeria proud in every scene.
Community and sisterhood are what holds these warriors together. No matter where you come from, once you become an Agojie, you belong and will never be left alone. The women live this too, standing by and returning for each other even while facing the threat of death. More than their strength and ability to withstand great amounts of pain, it is this belief that keeps them going. Each woman has had a tough past; tough enough that whatever pain and hardship they would face as warriors is much better to them than where they were coming from. With the Agojie, they are protected, equipped, and have found a place to call home. It was so beautiful to see that on screen.
Going back to the Dahomey’s gaining their wealth off the slave trade–because that is a big point of contention for people–I am finding the idea of seeing characters who are heroes in one story and villains in another to be increasingly fascinating. How do we decide how they are perceived in history? I think it involves painting all sides of the truth and allowing each one to exist, but maybe more on that when we do our podcast on the film. It is also worth noting that the story is inspired by true events, which means they are not claiming to 100% accurately represent what happened in history. And I think that’s okay too.
Aside from the amazing acting, the incredible musicality of the film, another reason you should see it is because of how long it took to get it made. The Woman King film took seven years to make because the ‘higher ups’ did not think this film about African people with dark-skinned actresses would do well. More than going to appreciate the hard work of the filmmakers (and they worked hard), I would love for people to go see it to let everyone know that stories like ours, and people like us are just as important as others.
The Woman King premiered at TIFF ’22 and is now available in theatres.