Fun fact: this film almost starred Lupita Nyong’o. Back in 2018, when the film was announced, Nyong’o was cast alongside Viola Davis. She was evidently so excited by the project that she went to Benin with a documentary crew, hoping to learn more about the real-life subjects of the film. Not long after, Nyong’o exited the production.
It isn’t difficult to guess what went wrong; The Woman King is about the Agojie, an elite all-female military unit that served the West African Kingdom of Dahomey. The film chronicles General Nanisca (Davis) as she trains the next generation of soldiers among rising political tension in the 1820s – the security of Dahomey is fraught, due to threats from a larger empire and from European slave-traders and colonialists. But, the vast majority of Dahomey’s profit comes from capturing and selling people from other tribes. Nanisca is uneasy about this and wants to convince the new King Ghezo (John Boyega) to explore an alternative source of revenue; Dahomey is at a crossroads.
This is all well and good, except for the fact that it isn’t accurate. In reality, Dahomey (and by extension, the Agojie) vehemently upheld the slave trade. This is likely why Nyong’o departed the production; in her documentary Warrior Women (well-worth watching), she unravels the Agojie’s mythos. She speaks to families torn apart by their brutality in service of the slave trade. The Woman King does touch on the role the Agojie played in slavery – more than some commentators would have you believe – but it certainly doesn’t go far enough. In minimising the Agojie’s actions, the film misses an opportunity to take a nuanced look at colonialism and its affects on Africa and Africans.
It’s difficult to review the film without taking history into account; seeing past the lionisation of vicious slave traders is a tough ask. Still, The Woman King is a fantastic historical epic, along the lines of Braveheart but far superior. The action sequences are excellently choreographed, the Agojie acrobatic in their stunts and formidable in their combat. The cinematography and direction are superb, the colours deep and rich, the framing simple but effective.
The best part, though, is the incredible performances – everyone is pitch perfect. Davis is intimidating and physical, but has scenes of such great tenderness she nearly breaks your heart. Thuso Mbedu as Nawi, our deuteragonist, injects her character with youthful fire and pathos and wonderfully goes toe-to-toe with Davis. The supporting cast, including the charismatic Boyega, the electric Lashana Lynch, and the warm Sheila Atim, are as essential as the leads. Their interactions are captivating. In particular, watching the sisterhood between the Agojie fluctuate and flourish is moving stuff – this is the heart of The Woman King, transcending even the dicey revisionism.
The film’s weakest aspect is, undoubtedly, the screenplay. The pacing lags in the middle and the film could only have been improved by having a deeper, subtler take on the Agojie and Dahomey. Perhaps this is a result of two White women writing a screenplay about Black women. Regardless, The Woman King is a worthwhile addition to cinema, as it skilfully portrays a narrative rarely seen on the big screen (or, in fact, any screen). It’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t flatten Africa’s human and cultural diversity or reduce them to stereotypes.
It’s telling that the film faced such intense backlash and calls to boycott on the basis of its inaccuracies; many a production has suffered from the same problems and I have rarely seen boycotts in response to those. Hamilton, for example, did not deal with this. Neither did Braveheart. Why should this confident, empathetic film be any different?
I implore you to take a chance on The Woman King – if not because it’s an excellent film, then because its success might finally convince Hollywood to tell more stories like it. And that can only be a good thing.