Night scene. Africa. 1800’s. A group of Benti tribal men are gathered around a campfire. Some are cleaning weapons and there’s a sense of celebration. Then, a man steps toward the African grasses, raises a hand and listens, warily. The warriors laugh as a bird call is heard. Then out of the tall grass rises a tribe of warriors. The Agojie, the fierce women warriors of the Dahomey tribe, rise from the brush. For a moment the camera lingers on the faces, tense and determined, then they leap out, flying unto the men, brandishing their swords.
“The Woman King” starts with a battle. That brutal ambush is quickly over, leaving dead bodies on the ground with one Agojie lost. The warriors rescue the kidnapped Dahomey people. The opening is indicative of the battle the film has faced. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood had an uphill battle to get the film made and then upon its release, faced criticism of its “revisionist history”. Even as it was the #1 movie at the box office, the hashtag #BoycottWomanKing was trending on Twitter.
Star Viola Davis, who at 56, trained for months to achieve her fighting prowess, had to give an interview stating that the film was not a documentary. “The Woman King” is a fictionalized moment in African history that celebrates this group of women warriors. If you watch the film, you’ll see that the opening scene ends with the Agojie leading off the survivors of the attack bound as captives.
“First of all, I agree with [the film’s director] Gina Prince-Bythewood’s saying is you’re not going to win an argument on Twitter,” Davis said of the criticism in an interview with Variety. “We entered the story where the kingdom was in flux, at a crossroads. They were looking to find some way to keep their civilization and kingdom alive. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that they were decimated. Most of the story is fictionalized. It has to be.” Variety, Sept 19, 2022, Clayton Davis
The movie features the Dahomey king, a great casting choice in British actor, John Boyega, stating the importance of human trafficking to the Dahomey economy. The end of the film does seem to imply that once the Agojie has slaughtered the slavers and those slave ships are sailing off without their intended cargo, the slave trade is over for the Dahomey. Even if this may have been only true for that moment, the scene can be seen as a triumph for Davis’ General Nanisca. It serves the narrative of the film.
The reason to see the film isn’t to learn the history of this time (here’s a link to some Agojie context), but to celebrate that these women warriors existed. The performances are outstanding. Leading the army of virgin soldiers, Viola Davis is both a stern authority who brokers no weakness, and a troubled victim of sexual violence suffering from nightmares and PTSD. Her athletic performance in battle is ferocious. “The Women King” shows how slavery affected everyone, corrupting society and turning tribes against each other.
The audience is drawn into the story of the Agojie in the introduction of a new member. Thuso Mbedo is Nawi, a young woman forced to join the cloistered trainees. She’s feisty and defiant, but also conveys an innocence. Her journey to becoming an Agojie lets us learn about the close-knit tribe of sisters.
My favorite performance is second-in-command, Izogie, portrayed by the talented Lashana Lynch (so good in “No Time To Die”). Her character is tough, tender, and soulful. There’s a moment when she discusses what the Agojie must give up, as they must forswear family–taking no husband and having no children. Her wistful expression, a mere glance that reveals a depth of pain, seems to belie a sorrowful past.
“The Woman King” is brilliant. The costumes are astonishing, and the production design roots you in this world and time. It’s the performances that bring you immediately into this story of resilience and fortitude and you’ll leave wanting to know more of the real women who were the Agojie.
Drinks With Films rating: 4 ½ shots of whiskey poured out to honor Izogie (out of 5)