'The Woman King' Is a Rousing Epic of African Woman Warriors — With Big Divergences From History | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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'The Woman King' Is a Rousing Epic of African Woman Warriors — With Big Divergences From History

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Published September 28, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Davis has depth and gravitas in Prince-Bythewood's stirring if not strictly historical epic. - COURTESY OF ILZE KITSHOFF/SONY PICTURES
  • Courtesy Of Ilze Kitshoff/Sony Pictures
  • Davis has depth and gravitas in Prince-Bythewood's stirring if not strictly historical epic.

How often does a film with a Black woman director and stars win at the box office? A couple of weekends ago, The Woman King did just that. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Viola Davis, the action epic about an elite cadre of woman warriors in 19th-century Africa clearly appealed to moviegoers in search of an old-school spectacle with an uplifting message.

But the movie also sparked controversy, with some critics charging that it downplays or even erases the less uplifting aspects of the history on which it claims to be based. With that in mind, I watched the film, which is only in theaters.

The deal

In 1823, the West African kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) is poised to fight for its independence from the powerful Oyo empire. Both nations have enriched themselves by raiding their neighbors and selling their captives to the transatlantic slave trade.

General Nanisca (Davis) of Dahomey, who leads the king's fearsome guard of celibate fighting women, the Agojie, implores young King Ghezo (John Boyega) to stop trafficking humans and focus on the palm oil trade. The king puts her proposal on the back burner.

Meanwhile, young Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) jumps at the chance to join the Agojie after her father casts her out for rejecting a potential husband. Mentored by one of Nanisca's lieutenants, Izogie (Lashana Lynch), the brash new recruit learns about endurance and teamwork. When she meets a handsome Brazilian seaman (Jordan Bolger) with a Dahomey connection, Nawi faces a choice between romance and the bonds she's forged with her fellow soldiers.

Will you like it?

Director Prince-Bythewood has said that, in bringing The Woman King to the screen, she took inspiration from older historical epics such as Gladiator, Braveheart and The Last of the Mohicans. That influence is palpable. The battles are exciting yet human-scaled, unlike those in today's blockbusters; injuries feel real. The characters are distinct enough to be iconic, with plenty of material for the stellar cast to work with. While they're not terribly complex, their relationships evolve in ways that keep us rooting for them to put aside their differences and thwart the real villains.

Then there's the sheer, liberating novelty of watching women play all the major roles in a military epic — the battle-weary general, the fresh-faced recruit, the ornery drill sergeant, the steady lieutenant. Despite the heterosexual romantic subplot, the focus is where it should be: on the Agojie overcoming sources of friction within their ranks and giving one another the strength to face a common enemy.

But there's another way in which The Woman King resembles earlier historical spectacles: It revises the facts to tell a more crowd-pleasing story. While Dahomey and the Agojie were real, Nanisca is fictional, as is her resolve to stop trafficking human beings. In fact, King Ghezo didn't leave the slave trade until 1852, under pressure from the British government. (For more facts and historical sources on the Agojie, see a recent online story in Smithsonian Magazine.)

So, yes, the screenplay by Dana Stevens draws on the powerful iconography of the Agojie while also making them more progressive than they really were. Davis' Nanisca encourages the king to use a pan-African rhetoric — referring to "our culture," for instance — that speaks directly and compellingly to modern audiences but feels ahistorical in a 19th-century setting.

In the words of culture writer Shamira Ibrahim, in an in-depth review of the movie on her Substack, The Woman King is a "sustained dance between the competing masters of entertainment and history." For those seeking a nuanced view of the controversy, her whole analysis is well worth reading.

Dramatists have been highlighting the inspiring aspects of history and downplaying the uglier ones since the dawn of the form, and Prince-Bythewood and Stevens are no exception. As Davis told Variety in her response to calls to boycott the movie, "Most of the story is fictionalized. It has to be."

In 2022, solid historical sources are more accessible than ever before. Is there still a cultural role for fictions that rewrite history the way we wish it had happened? One certainly hopes that high school teachers won't stream The Woman King for their students and treat it as a history lesson, but the same could be said for Braveheart, Spartacus or JFK. I'd like to think we can enjoy a movie such as this one — which is groundbreaking in some ways and deeply traditional in others — while still recognizing it as a potent combination of fact and fantasy.

If you like this, try...

Neptune Frost (2021; Criterion Channel, MUBI, rentable): African cinema offers a wealth of recent exciting films — such as this visually stunning futuristic punk musical, shot in Burundi, and This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection (2019; Kanopy, Criterion Channel, rentable) from Lesotho.

The Old Guard (2020; Netflix): Prince-Bythewood showed her talent for crafting action epics with this tale of a weary crew of immortal superheroes. Also check out her old-school romantic drama Beyond the Lights (2014; Kanopy, Tubi, Hoopla, Plex, rentable).

"The Underground Railroad" (10 episodes, 2021; Amazon Prime Video): If Mbedu impressed you in The Woman King, don't miss her earlier star turn as an enslaved woman fleeing to freedom in Barry Jenkins' riveting miniseries adaptation of Colson Whitehead's novel. Sheila Atim (Amenza in The Woman King) plays her mother.

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