M, 135 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
Set against a dark backstory, this exhilarating tale of Amazon women, brimming with female energy, has more going for it than most superhero flicks
While the hunt for the truth about warrior women among the ancients is still ongoing, a more recent Amazon story has come to the screen in this fiction feature set in 19th century Africa. The Agoje did not bare a breast like figures in Greek art to keep their clothing out of the way of bow and arrows, but these African women trained in the art of war are evidence that women warriors really did exist. They were a continuous presence for more than three hundred years, protecting the king of Dahomey who ruled what is now present-day Benin.
Why haven’t we heard about the Agoje before? There are all sorts of reasons, some of which are of course obvious, but it is fascinating to know that an authentic all-female military unit really are an historical fact, and can’t be dismissed as a figment of soldiers’ fevered imaginations.
Making a feature film based on the Agoje story apparently gained traction after the first Black Panther movie so spectacularly showed the way with its all-Black cast of superheroes. That was in 2018 and now the sequel is poised for release.
For me, someone underwhelmed by the superhero schtick unless the characters have a few dimensions and the tone is tongue-in-cheek, this movie has so much more going for it. The Woman King was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Dana Stevens. The screenplay was developed from a story that Stevens wrote with that interesting actress Maria Bello. Other key creatives were also women, cinematographer Polly Morgan and editor Terilyn A. Shropshire, while a commanding Viola Davis, recipient of many acting awards and nominations, leads the cast.
The narrative opens in 1823 when Dahomey under King Ghezo, a dignified John Boyega, is trying to fend off the threat from the marauding Oyo Empire, and push back on its demands for tribute. During this escalating crisis, a spirited young girl from a farming family arrives at the capital. Having shown that she will never submit in marriage, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) is sent away by her father to make her own way.
Would she be suitable material for training to be an Agoje warrior? Earning a place in the disciplined female fighting corps trained by Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and led by formidable Nanisca (Davis), will demand more of her than simple courage, and this personal journey becomes the focus of the film.
Nanisca is a stern and brooding presence who comes to personify the titular character, but the narrative arc is all about Nawi’s journey from obstinate, undisciplined country girl to warrior
With her fiercely independent nature, Nawi cannot see the point in following orders that don’t allow for friendship loyalty and personal judgement in the heat of the moment, and an interesting dynamic tension develops between her and her superiors, Izogie and Nanisca.
This indoctrination process is not unrelenting. The Agoje may be fearsome warriors who show ruthless determination in battle, but they can also appreciate the funny side of things when a new recruit makes a fool of herself at training, and they’re not above a little bitchiness either. It all rings pretty true, without compromising the drama.
There are even some tender moments of romance when Nawi and mixed-race Malik (Jordan Bolger) meet in an idyllic setting, at a pool fed by a waterfall. Cliched romantic tropes are swapped so that Malik does the nude bathing and Nawi sharpens her weapon. Cute. Although she steals the show from Davis, engaging South African actress, Mbedu is terrific as Nawi.
The climactic scenes at Ouidah have a more chilling effect. It was once a thriving port on Africa’s ‘slave coast’, through which multitudes of slaves were sold. The trans-Atlantic slave trade still being conducted between Africa nations, European nations and the Americas at the time makes for a dark backstory in which many are implicated and others clearly active, from the Oyo to Ghezo and the Brazilian and English traders who inhabit the foreground and background. The film doesn’t pull its punches over the brutal facts.
The Woman King works well on many levels. A smart script, interesting female and male characters brought to life by persuasive and some striking performances, visceral action scenes and a powerful backstory. It’s an exhilarating, entertaining brush with history.