The Woman King is a rare occurrence in Hollywood. The modestly budgeted historical epic was developed by women, written by women, directed by a Black woman, and starred an ensemble of Black women. Without pulling any statistics, it is safe to say that Black-led cinema does not often get the chance to be blockbuster hits, is not nearly as promoted as their non-Black counterparts, and doesn’t get the same level of pedigree. In recent years that has changed, and we finally arrive at this moment where Academy-award winner Viola Davis mounts her magnum opus, a sight to behold.
The Woman King is inspired by the real-life West African all-female military regiment, the Agojie (also known as the Dahomey Amazons by the colonizers). They are the king’s personal guards and warriors for the Kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin). Set in the 1820s, the Dahomey Kingdom is at a crossroads, just as the rest of Africa is. The infestation of Europeans has taken its toll, and now nations, kingdoms, and tribes are in a vicious cycle of depending on slavery to supply themselves with Europe’s modern weaponry and other vices, such as alcohol. Of course, it seems the Europeans are well aware that they are the sole beneficiaries of this transactional relationship as they will weaken Africa enough to take full advantage of the land’s resources and abundant labour.
General Nanisca (Viola Davis) sees this for what it is and warns King Ghezo (John Boyega) of the dangers of dealing with the colonizers. Seemingly, her words of wisdom have an impact, and King Ghezo allows his trusted general to strengthen their army and produce new ideas to replace enslavement. Meanwhile, young Nawi (Thuso Mdebu) is banished by her parents and forced to join the Agojie, which she is excited about. Nawi and Nansica’s paths will cross, and the relationship formed will alter the course of both of their lives.
Gina Prince-Bythewood joined the project about five years after Maria Bello pitched the idea to Viola Davis. The film had gone through the wringer from being undervalued to studios pitching a light-skinned well-known Black actress as the lead to studios outright declaring it would not be profitable. If it weren’t for the success of Black Panther, which featured a fictionalized version of the Agojie in the Dora Milaje, The Woman King could still be in development hell.
One of the key reasons The Woman King is a rousing epic is that the film isn’t positioned as an authority on the Dahomey Kingdom. There is enough truth and recognition of Dahomey’s role in the transatlantic slave trade to anchor this narrative to reality. However, the film is ultimately about the women. Nanisca is like many historical epic leads, a character burdened by their past and facing the uncertainty of the future. That is until her present reveals an unexpected bridge between her past and future, which comes in the form of Nawi. Nawi, her fellow recruits and the seasoned warriors of the Agojie all have reasons to fight for their kingdom by taking up the honour of being a warrior and risking their lives. The story is an emphatic uncovering of what lurks behind the facade of a strong Black woman; the personal narrative is what drives The Woman King, not historical accuracy.
Many dissenters have offered unsolicited and uninformed opinions on a project they have not watched and have eagerly misunderstood. In Hollywood history, there has been an unspoken understanding that films based on history, or inspired by actual events and real people, should not be taken too seriously. In The Woman King, there is a narrative that the film somehow glorifies slave captors and is ignorant of how the Dahomey Kingdom participated. The script by Dana Stevens, which was informed by research into the history of Benin (formerly Dahomey), pulls in historically accurate details to flesh out the world. King Ghezo participated in slavery, entertained the idea of other alternatives to help Dahomey financially, and the colonizers were loosely based on actual people. However, there is a clear understanding that this film is an aspirational look at the reality of Dahomey, but it is not ignorant of Dahomey’s involvement.
Nanisca, whose name is inspired by a real Agojie recruit, is a fictional creation that embodies the ideals and morals that one can hope many African people had during this time. The not-so-subtle invasion of the Europeans began with poisoning the minds of the Africans, and eventually, they were willing to do their bidding as it was one of the few ways to thrive. Nanisca stands for the ideal alternative, one that wishes to deny the Europeans and seek a new path for redemption and glory. Again, historical epics aren’t documentaries but fictitious recreations of actual events for entertainment. And The Woman King is entertaining, and the standard for what is acceptable for historical epics shouldn’t be disregarded just because this one fronts a Black creative team and ensemble. If you wish for an accurate read on the Agojie, Lupita Nyong’o (who was previously attached to star) led a TV documentary called Warrior Women with Lupita Nyong’o.
Now, back to the actual film. Gina Prince-Bythewood has claimed that Gladiator, Braveheart, and The Last of the Mohicans influenced her directing, and you can see it on screen. The Woman King is an emotionally charged, drama-filled, action-packed good time. Surrounding Prince-Bythewood is an excellent crew and heads of department that knew precisely what was expected of them and exceeded expectations. Polly Morgan’s cinematography is astounding and particularly notable as the rich colour and texture of the actor’s Black skin are visible in every scene.
Furthermore, the sharpness of the colours in the clothing popped on the screen and paired with the attention to detail, it is impossible not to rave about it. Costume designer Gersha Phillips expertly draws from tradition and history to craft intricate costuming that adds to the story and characters. Visually, Prince-Bythewood emphasizes the epic in historical epic, with her team of experts filling in the gaps to create a fully realized community with no detail missed.
The commitment from the actors is a testament to Prince-Bythewood’s ability to communicate her vision to them. Davis is brilliant as always, but it is Lashana Lynch who rises to unbelievable heights with her dynamic portrayal of the volatile yet hilarious Izogie. Izogie is perhaps the most prominent character next to Nanisca and Nawi. She is the symbolic third side of the coin that makes up the Agojie and offers an exciting contrast to Nanisca and Nawi’s respective journeys. Thuso Mbedu’s Nawi is the film’s beating heart, with her wide-eyed eagerness to be a great warrior bringing joy and warmth to the audience. Sheila Atim’s Amenza is the spiritual source of the film, creating a kind and welcoming vibe that invites audiences to understand and appreciate Dahomey’s cultural and spiritual aspects. Atim’s striking appearance and breathtaking vocal skills lend to her scene-stealing performance.
Jayme Lawson and Riaan Visman devour their bit parts. Lawson glows as Shante, the politically savvy wife of the king who aspires to become his equal as the Woman King. Visman offers a delightfully biting role as a royal advisor who intensely dislikes Shante. There are no weak spots in the ensemble, though Adrienne Warren’s growing popularity warranted a meatier role, as she is underutilized as Ode. Otherwise, the cast is perfect, with every part serving a purpose, no matter how big or small.
The ensemble’s passionate and, at times, awe-inspiring performances are a reflection of Prince-Bythewood’s directing but also the collective mission at hand. At every stage of this production, from the staging to the lighting, to the performances, to the score, to the costumes, to the production design, and even to the promotion of this film, the goal was to create a space for Black women to thrive. On-screen are heroic, messy, complicated, passionate, angry, flawed, and dynamic women. They all serve a purpose to the story and have something to say about the diversity amongst Black women.
The Woman King is an ambitious production, it aims to create space for Black women to exist on screen unhindered by colorism, stereotyping, and the other petty ways Hollywood has sought to undermine us. Ideally, this film will open a door that has been opened and shut repeatedly. This door will hopefully stay wide open and allow for more films to be produced that centre on Black women, their experiences, their power, their flaws, but most importantly, their humanity. Not every picture has to be a historical epic, as we need so much progress in fantasy, horror, science fiction, westerns, and many more genres that have more than enough room for Black women to thrive.
The Woman King is an example of a film that overcame many hurdles and barriers to come out on the other side stronger and better than ever imagined. The film is moving, funny, honest, dark, humbling, and entertaining. It can stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the most beloved historical epics, and hopefully, it will not be the only of its kind for long.