Inspired by true history, “The Woman King” takes place in the 1800s and tells the story of the Agojie, an all-female unit of soldiers who protect the African kingdom of Dahomey. The film follows the warriors’ general as she trains the newest group of recruits to defend Dahomey against foreign enemies.
Viola Davis plays the Agojie’s leader Nanisca, a woman who exudes power and commands the respect of all, but she is secretly being haunted by her past. Davis gives a compelling performance, masterfully adding and peeling back the emotional layers to this complex character. Thuso Mbedu portrays the story’s other main heroine, a young recruit named Nawa. Mbedu perfectly encapsulates the character’s teenage defiance, all the while reaching moving emotional depths. Other memorable performances include the funny and fierce Izogie, played by Lashana Lynch, and the spiritual second-in-command Amenza, played by Sheila Atim.
The film itself is visually stunning. Vibrant colors and bold patterns decorate the ensemble’s costumes, all while maintaining believable practicality for women going into battle. In fact, the whole film was vibrant. This paired against red soil, green flora, and deep blues of the night painted a rich and vivd world.
One of the main draws of the film is its thrilling action scenes. In the first few minutes of the movie, we are given a swift introduction to the ferocity in which the Agojie women fight. They are expertly skilled and are ruthless in their battles. There is intense hand-to-hand combat, flipping and spinning through the air and men being slaughtered left and right. Time and time again, the women prove they are a force to be reckoned with, making them revered by all in the kingdom.
Where “The Woman King” really thrives is in its characters’ humility. A central theme of the film is found sisterhood. Something worth appreciation is the depth that is given to the characters. The women are not simply portrayed as strong and brutish soldiers, but also caring and compassionate people. Tight friendships are formed as the Agojie encourage and care for their sworn sisters. They endure grueling training sessions as well as risk their lives for each other in battle, and yet, there is a sense of camaraderie and playfulness as they still sing, dance and joke at the end of the day.
One criticism to be mentioned is where the movie strays from historical accuracy. The Dahomey people played a large part in the Atlantic slave trade, which is how they thrived economically. Where it seems to diverge from reality is what brought this practice to an end. While the movie portrays Dahomey’s breaking away as a moral obligation done on their own accord, the recorded history is that England ended overseas slave-trading, consequently putting a stop the kingdom’s involvement.
Many critics have argued that this film glorifies a group that took part in the slave trade by revising history. However, being that it is not a documentary, one could argue that the main purpose of this film was to entertain, not educate. The film’s focus is not to redeem the kingdom’s slave trading, but to tell the story of a unique female battalion. Regardless of the historical accuracy, audiences are introduced to a subject that is not widely discussed. Additionally, it is important to bear in mind that the recorded history of the Dahomey kingdom was likely written by white Europeans and not by the people who actually lived it.
It seems appropriate that the few of the downfalls of this female-focused movie were because of its male characters. One of the strictly enforced rules of being part of the Agojie is the women are not allowed to date. Enter a ludicrous romance sub-plot that fails to play any hand in developing Nawa’s character. If anything, it does the opposite, possibly even downplaying other more meaningful relationships. The whole pairing felt like a too-convenient, underdeveloped afterthought.
The other misstep the film took with male characters was in the casting of the main slave trader, Santo. Upon entering the theater to watch a harrowing story of women, one is probably not expecting to be suddenly reminded of Netflix’s 2019 fanfiction-turned-romance movie, “After.” However, that might be exactly what audience members get when actor Hero Finneas Tiffin appears on the big screen. If it was not off-putting enough just seeing him, then listening to the terrible cadence that is his feigned Portuguese accent may be.
Aside from its few missteps, The Woman King is a success. Audiences will laugh, cry and celebrate with its courageous heroines. Its powerful storyline, character arcs and cinematography paired with the ensemble’s gripping performances makes the film well worth the watch.