"KEEP BUSTIN'."

The Woman King

THE WOMAN KING has an irresistible hook that made it a hit: Did you know there was an all-female military regiment in 1800s West Africa, “THE MOST EXCEPTIONAL FEMALE WARRIORS TO EVER LIVE”? Now that you do, wouldn’t you like to see them kicking ass on screen, fighting off the invading “Europeens,” with Academy Award winner Viola Davis as their badass leader?

For me the answers to those questions were no, I don’t think I did, and yes, of course I would. I meant to see it in theaters, but I missed it. Reviews were mostly positive, but I remember them seeming a little subdued. Maybe I misread them, or maybe they wanted it to seem more like a Very Important awards season type movie to really get behind it. I think it has plenty of substance to it, but director Gina Prince-Bythewood (THE OLD GUARD) doesn’t treat that like the main attraction, and she shouldn’t have to. There’s a precedent for crowd-pleasing historical action dramas winning best picture, but BRAVEHEART and GLADIATOR could pass for highfalutin without having to address any issues, you know? They just had to make a rousing speech about bravery and killing a motherfucker, nobody expected them to say something deep about the world’s problems.

I actually think THE WOMAN KING does do that, but not in the way people might’ve been looking for. It’s not some neatly delivered message, but it’s there for you to contemplate beneath the surface of a slick, involving Hollywood entertainment.

Of course part of the attraction is that the story requires a stacked ensemble cast of physically powerful Black women, which you don’t see every day. And it has a great, layered character for Davis (WIDOWS) to sink her teeth into, which she does seem to do every day, but this time she gets to do it while swinging swords, flying through the air, and menacing everybody with her shoulders as much as with her eyes and words. It’s wonderful.

Set in 1823 in the kingdom of Dahomey, Davis plays the fictional General Nanisca, leader of the real life regiment the Agojie (also called the Dahomey Mino or, by white people, Dahomey Amazons). In the opening scene they attack a camp of (male) slavers from the Oyo Empire, a powerful state they’ve recently started to rebel against. These women rise out of the bushes like cobras, and I believed those big tough guys really would be terrified by it. The Agojie win the day, rescue a bunch of abducted women, and return home as heroes, strutting proudly past a line of awe-struck citizens who are forbidden from looking at them. I suspect the cast had a really good movement coach, because the precision of the posture and body language in this movie is off the charts.

The camera particularly focuses on two of Nanisca’s lieutenants, the tall, lanky Amenza (Sheila Atim, BRUISED, DOCTOR STRANGE PRESENTS THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS, PINOCCHIO [Zemeckis version]), and the swaggering Izogie (Lashana Lynch, CAPTAIN MARVEL, NO TIME TO DIE). Lynch’s screen presence is practically nuclear; she gives off the air of a superstar athlete, and one who’s good with the fans, judging by the way she runs over and smiles at a kid sneaking a peak at them through his fingers. As a bonus she has a cool gimmick – long fingernails that she uses like claws, refashioning a symbol of femininity into a weapon.

One of the civilians, a young woman named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu, The Underground Railroad), gets into trouble with her family by rejecting (and then punching) the rich older man they try to marry her to. Fed up with her standing up for herself, her dad drags her to the palace as a “gift” for King Ghezo (John Boyega, ATTACK THE BLOCK, playing the only character based on a real historical person). Izogie is at the gate, and she walks Newi right into the compound where only women are allowed. It seems to me Nawi’s attitude gradually goes from “What have I done?” to “I’ve got a golden ticket!” as she gets a tour of the place and realizes what her life is about to become.

(Note: This is reportedly a real thing that happened – fathers giving their daughters to the king, and them being turned into soldiers. That’s terrible, and also good riddance, Dad, you suck.)

We get lots of badass training, testing and tough-lady cold-hearted warrior philosophizing. Also jogging and some dancing. (We never see them rehearsing this, but they have some songs they play together.) Izogie is a good mentor and friend, intimidating but ultimately very supportive. Nanisca is a tougher coach. Catching Nawi grumbling about rope-tying lessons she embarrasses her by handing her a sword and having her discover in front of her fellow trainees that chopping a dummy’s head off is harder than it looks. (It’s so satisfying later when COOL SHIT SPOILER we see her in a battle swinging a sword tied to a rope. Weird that we got this and PREY in the same year!)

There’s a bit of a forbidden romance angle. Portuguese slave trader Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, nephew of Ralph and Joseph) comes to meet with the king and he brings his friend Malik (Jordan Bolger, TOM & JERRY, The Book of Boba Fett) to see the place, because Malik’s mother was a slave from Dahomey. It is standard practice in Dahomey and Oyo to sell off captured enemies as slaves, and thankfully Malik seems troubled seeing people in cages, though he remains sadly forgiving of his buddy’s involvement, saying they grew up together. I like that they chose hunky guys to play these characters. They didn’t feel the need to make Santo a weasel to underline that we should hate him. They know we get it.

Anyway, Nawi sees Malik while he’s bathing, later the dork waves at her during a ceremony, they develop a bit of a relationship, and learn some things from each other. (I don’t mean that in a suggestive way. You know how movies are these days. And this is PG-13.)

Amenza seems to be Nanisca’s partner, which brings up implications that becoming a warrior might be a “safe” way to be a lesbian. Other’s may prefer the lifestyle due to past mistreatment by men. For Nanisca it might be both. There’s some backstory-related complications that at first seem a little convenient, but serve to create some good, mythical drama. A traumatic incident in the past ties Nanisca to Nawi and gives them reason for personal animosity toward Oyo general Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya, CRAZY GRANNIES).

I like that Boyega doesn’t look like he got a super hero trainer to buff him up to compete with the other men in the movie. He looks very slim and clean, in stark contrast to the burly, bushy-bearded athletes of the Oyo Empire, and it doesn’t faze him. He’s confident in his power and his female bodyguards.

The action is better than I expect from big non-87Eleven Hollywood movies, incorporating interesting fighting styles, a variety of weapons, some cool speed-ramped leaps and acrobatic wrestling moves. I appreciate all the spinning of spears and the contrasting of different body types. Credited fight coordinators are Filip Ciprian Florian (MONSTER HUNTER), Johnny Gao (assistant fight coordinator from THE OLD GUARD), Daniel Hernandez (NEVER BACK DOWN) and Stuart Williamson (Tom Hardy stunt double on FURY ROAD). Davis’ stunt double and trainer is Jénel Stevens, who among other things was a Dorae Milaje in BLACK PANTHER.

Speaking of which, if you saw the trailer for this you may agree that its use of modern music (“My Power” from Beyonce’s LION KING album, rather than the actual score by the great Terence Blanchard) sure didn’t play down the BLACK PANTHER similarities. It’s impossible to avoid parallels, because the Dorae Milaje of the Black Panther comics and movies were largely inspired by the Agojie. I think that and the “BASED ON POWERFUL TRUE EVENTS” tagline got people expecting a straight forward empowerment tale, which led to controversy among people who assumed the movie would ignore that Dahomey were one of the top slave-trading kingdoms. That’s actually a major part of the plot, but the movie does do some myth-making with King Ghezo announcing an end to Dahomey involvement in the slave trade at the end. In reality he resisted that until 1852 because, like so many leaders, he was too timid to face the financial consequences of doing the right thing. And then he brought it back five years later when the palm oil industry wasn’t as profitable.

It should be noted that BRAVEHEART wasn’t required to be a historical textbook, and that some of what we think we know about King Ghezo could be tainted with western propaganda. I think as presented here he’s a character with some layers to him. He comes across as wise and thoughtful because he’ll usually deliberate and then come to what seems like the right decision in the context of the movie, like supporting Nanisca, or forgiving her for disobeying him, or choosing her for the titular leadership role over his fancy-pants wife. But even setting aside the enslaving of his enemies (if such a thing can be done), it’s mentioned that he’s so loyal to Nanisca because “she supported him during the coup.”

The coup! That was enough to make me skeptical of him. They don’t get into it, but in real life he seized power from his older brother with the help of Francisco Felix de Sousa, a Brazilian slave trader with a grudge because the brother had imprisoned him over a money dispute. Kings do nasty shit.

If this guy isn’t so great, then by extension the people who fight for him aren’t exactly pure, and to me that’s what the movie is about. I see it as one of those have/eat cake action movies that appeal to me; it takes advantage of how fun and cool great warriors are on screen while showing that warring isn’t a very cool thing to be great at. (See also: BILLY JACK, UNFORGIVEN, THE NORTHMAN). By definition, a warrior will be involved in some shit they’re not proud of, or at least shouldn’t be. Unjust wars, atrocities in even the most just war, perpetuating a cycle of violence, and a corrupt system, in this case one of enslaving human beings to trade for weapons used to kill human beings. Nanisca and the others put themselves through hell to be heroes, but also to be one of the main components of that evil system.

Of course, not being pure and super heroic doesn’t mean they’re not interesting. It truly is a rare thing in history for there to be an all-female military force, much less for them to be given high status, wealth, and involvement in policymaking. And there’s stuff in the movie, like the harrowing race through thorns, that would’ve been cool in a KICKBOXER or Shaw Brothers training montage, but in this case comes from their actual methods. Plus, it’s just fascinating to see a discipline that involves women vowing to forgo motherhood and marriage when we’re used to so many societies that view those as the main (or only) purpose for women’s lives.

That might come across as less inspirational if the movie mentioned it was because they were officially considered wives of the king, or if it addressed the subject of genital mutilation. This ain’t exactly girl power. It works better as an illustration of that idea that women proving they can do something as well as or better than men isn’t so hot if nobody should be doing that thing in the first place. So for example women being empowered to make movies is more important than women being empowered to behead people.

Some who were mad at the movie were quick to point out it was written by white ladies. Dana Stevens (FOR LOVE OF THE GAME) gets the screenplay credit, story by Maria Bello, who learned of the Agojie on a trip to Benin and saw the potential for a movie, receiving her first writing credit after acting in PAYBACK, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR, ABDUCTION, PRISONERS, etc. It’s not my place to say who should write movies about Africans, but they brought it to a Black woman director who’d finally gained some long-overdue clout. This is only Prince-Bythewood’s sixth movie in a 22-year directing career, and it proves we’re gonna need more. She had eight years between LOVE & BASKETBALL and THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, then six until BEYOND THE LIGHTS, and another six until THE OLD GUARD, so good for her/society finally getting one out with only a two year gap. Let’s keep that pace going.

The part of the movie that hit me most is the motif of the hard-bitten veterans opening their hearts a little from the influence of this young new recruit. During a grueling initiation race, Nawi makes it through the aforementioned barrier of thorns, but turns back to help her friend who’s stuck. Izogie doesn’t understand why Nawi would risk her place in the race, but she explains that she didn’t want to make it without her friend. Later, while escaping captivity, Izogie has a chance to escape, but goes back for Nawi. It seals her own fate, so it’s not the lesson I would like it to be. But things don’t always work out as they should, even in fiction.

At the end SPOILER EVEN THOUGH IT’S THE TITLE Nanisca becomes The Woman King, sharing the throne with King Ghezo. We’re not told what this means for her life, or how she feels about it. Is she retired from fighting? Is she unhappy about that? We see her sitting on a throne, changed out of her warrior garb into a pretty purple dress, looking bored and uncomfortable. But she’s learned something. It sounded pretty badass early in the movie when she told Nawi “To be a warrior you must kill your tears.” They even put it in the trailer. But in one of the last scenes of the movie she tearfully expresses her emotions to Nawi, and it’s an important moment in both of their lives, so that’s clearly a much better idea. To live you have to kill your warrior.

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 19th, 2023 at 1:17 pm and is filed under Reviews, Action, War. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “The Woman King”

  1. What! No comments? Ok, this is definitely on my to-watch list, because:
    A: I’m a sucker for any period action/war epic
    B: After giving us the chilling Amanda Waller, I believe it is past overdue for Viola Davis to get an Ass Kicking Lead Role. Seriously, next to Sam L Jackson and Ving Rhames, she has a 1000 yard stare that can chill blood.

  2. Pretty good film overall, though I prefer Davis’s performance in Steve McQueen’s Widow’s over her work here. I’m also happy to see her carrying a financially successful film on her shoulders as leading character.

  3. Ok, saw it. And liked it. It’s a good movie, but with a little more focus and depth to the script, it could have been a great movie.

    Personally, I wished the movie had put Nanisca front and center to the narrative. I was much more interested in seeing more of her ideological differences with King Ghezo, her rivalry with Ghezo’s spoilt and favorite wife, her relationship with Amenza and her “I’m gonna take your head, asshole!” enmity with General Oba.

    Instead, we get far too much time with Hollywood’s 1500th iteration of the Rebellious, Sass-Mouthed, Rule-Breaking Young Punk who thinks she’s special before it’s revealed …surprise!…she IS special! Her relationship to Nanisca comes straight out of a Bollywood movie and her attraction to a hunky Portuguese trader could have been cut out entirely. Sorry, Nawi, I just don’t find you very interesting as there’s already been too many versions of you.

    On the other hand…a female, African Maximus Decimus Meridus? Another reason THE WOMAN KING needed to be pretty much all about…The Woman King???

  4. THE WOMAN KING is one of my favorite movies of the past 10 years. It was great. And I love the way the only flaws certain people can find to complain about are how it was historically inaccurate as if fiction must solely be judged on its adherence to reality. That’s why people hated INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS so much, if you recall.

  5. Yes, suddenly narrative license was deemed a cardinal sin where THE WOMAN KING was concerned.

    Because we all know what towering monuments to Historical Verisimilitude movies like GLADIATOR, BRAVEHEART, TROY and 300 were.

  6. I think there’s a difference between artistic liberties (which plenty of people DO complain about) and straight-up whitewashing history to pretend that atrocities were never committed.

  7. Or maybe I didn’t read the room right when we were all discussing that Columbus movie.

  8. I get where you’re coming from, Kaplan. The idea is that THE WOMAN KING deserves to be tarred with the same brush as 1492, because just like the latter valorized a genocide-propagating asshole, the former neatly sidesteps the fact that the Kingdom of Dahomey actively engaged in the slave trade and even after King Ghezo switched to palm oil, it was temporary as it simply wasn’t bringing in as much profits and so switched back to the lucrative practice of taking captives and then selling them. They also practiced human sacrifices (apparently up to 800 captives were sacrificed to honor King Ghezo’s passing).

    But…I don’t care, having a conditioned Pavlovian response to any Hollywood movie that aims to be based on “actual events”, my BS Meter kicking into overdrive to say pretty much 99% of what they’re depicting is generously embroidered facts or outright omission of them. And I’d have to target a crap ton of movies to miss if I put “Whitewashing” as a filter. Never mind historical epics like this, wasn’t that loving couple so nicely played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in those Conjuring movies, in actual life a pair of kooky con-artists who preyed on people’s sadness and vulnerability?

    I aim to be entertained and not educated for 2 hours. Especially since the education bit can be taken care of by a 2 minute Google Search which will set you right.

    But have no issues with those who do have a problem with movies like these.

  9. Really good movie, good pacing good action and you were invested in the characters.

    The whole time I was watching it I was saying to myself “this is kind of an old school “historical epic” ” in a good and happy way, because prior to pushing” play” I was afraid I was gonna get a boring lecture movie.

  10. I realize a sort of historical context is necessary for any period piece, unless you want them all to be one of those anachronistic things where everyone is just a zoomer doing cosplay but still using modern slang and listening to Doja Cat. But I think in the case of something like 300, you can dismiss the Spartans keeping slaves because the Persians kept slaves as well, as did just about every society at the time, so you can handwave it as not important to the story (and the story itself as just a fun adventure with maybe some subversive commentary on modern politics).

    But this seems like an outright willful attempt to sell the public a story that didn’t happen and in fact is the opposite of what really happened. Like if in a hundred years, someone said “hey, these SS guys sound cool. Let’s make a movie about them. But the whole Holocaust thing is a downer, so let’s make it so they’re trying to protect the Jews and the Allies are trying to get them.”

    And somehow it’s not a big deal, but Quentin Tarantino depicting Bruce Lee as being a bit of a pill–that’s crossing the line.

  11. I don’t think anybody believed that 300 was an accurate portrayal of anything historical. Didn’t the Spartans at one point fight a monster rhino and a 9ft tall mutant with blades for arms?

  12. Well, that’s another thing, that 300 and The Conjuring (and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, for that matter) are clearly over-the-top spectacles that aren’t trying very hard to be historically accurate, but I didn’t want to cloud the issue too much. If my hypothetical “good guy SS” movie featured the SS fighting cyborgs and dinosaurs, it’d clearly be ahistorical, but the premise of valorizing the SS would still be crossing a line, to me at least.

    (Which brings to mind the debate over RRR’s historicality, which in turn makes me think of Pirates of the Caribbean and their glamorization of pirates. In case you were wondering, I think the British Empire/East Indian Trading Company was responsible for enough historical atrocities that, however bad Indian revolutionaries/pirates were, it’s not unreasonable to depict a scenario where they’re the good guys and the Brits are villains.)

  13. I don’t mind the liberties they took with the Spartans in 300, even though Sparta was a notorious slave nation even within its time (they committed horrifying, regular, institutionalized atrocities against their majority slave population, which I guess is necessary when you have more than half a dozen slaves per actual citizen). I don’t even mind that it’s not 300 + a couple thousand helots + a bunch more randos, since it wouldn’t make for that catchy a title, and there’s merit to justifying the inaccuracies as being based on an unreliable narrator basically spouting Spartan propaganda.
    What does bother me is the rampant misogyny, and it bothered me back when I read the comic and these concerns weren’t really in most people’s radars; I’m not saying this to advertise my early wokeness or whatever, I’m saying that the comic was pretty damn egregious. Miller made Gorgo’s arc as hateful as he could, and it was adapted faithfully to the screen. (Not holding it against Sn*der, who strikes me as being dumb rather than a horrible person.)

  14. * + a thousand helots. Need an edit button.

  15. IIRC, the Gorgo subplot in 300 was invented by Zach Snyder. It wasn’t in Frank Miller’s comic.

  16. Holy shit, you’re right; just checked the book (which I haven’t revisited since I first read it) and I can’t see Gorgo anywhere but at the start. Mandela’d that completely; I am a dumbass, and owe Frank Miller an apology.

  17. 300 is one of my least liked (to say it nicely) movies ever, so it’s weird that I come to its defense(-ish) twice within less than 24 hours, but they really didn’t paint the Spartans in a good light. Sure, they were the protagonists, but they weren’t the good guys. You could say that they had the right to defend themself, after some equally shitty people knocked on their door and threatened them, but the movie pretty much starts with explaining to their audience that they are a society that is build on fashism, murdering babies and torturing children into becoming war criminals. Sure, the movie (maybe the comic too, don’t know) does want us to cheer for their heroic sacrifices, but it definitely doesn’t portray them as the good guys who stand up for what is wrong in the world.

  18. Considering 300 is about the power of a story, you’re absolutely not supposed to take everything in it at face value. Someone even once criticised the part where Leonidas refers to the Athenians as “boy lovers” given homosexual relations were a thing in Spartan society, and Miller confirmed it was meant to come across as hypocritical, that the Spartans, at most, thought of themselves as “MAN lovers” and were making their geopolitical rivals out to be pederasts by comparison to make themselves look better.

  19. Also on 300….., while the scene ends with Butler pretty much bellowing the most iconic line of his career, it starts with Gorgo being a real bitch to the Persian emissary. Like, the man hasn’t even opened his mouth, and she’s shit-talking the dude with the modern equivalent of “Watch what comes out of your mouth, motherfucker, or you’re leaving this place a corpse, cause we’re Spartans and awesome and we don’t suffer fools”. Like…how about you hear what the man’s got to say first? (My sympathy for him having increased after the sequel reveals he adopted and raised the Eva Green character) So yeah…Spartans were dicks in the movie I admit.

  20. Except his response to her, was to question why “this woman” thinks she can speak among men, when she’s the Queen and he’s an emissary. Also, the Persians weren’t exactly an obscure factor by that point. They’d been threatening and conquering countries a ton by then, and there’s also the historical context of this isn’t even the first recent invasion of Greece by them. He was also warned before he said anything that everyone in Sparta was held accountable for their words, and he still told Leo that Sparta would be annihilated if they didn’t submit. And this was after showing up carrying the severed heads of other kings who refused.

  21. To ding 300 for historical inaccuracy is so weird…I do remember seeing the movie and it was clearly a fantasy, and at one point I just said “wait now there are straight up MONSTERS in this?” Which was great. It was a myth, total horseshit.

    Woman King was a pretty good flick…not amazing, but a solid movie and the fights were awesome.

  22. Re: Historic accuracy:

    “The events are ninety percent accurate…I’ve shown this movie to world-class historians who have said it’s amazing. They can’t believe it’s as accurate as it is.” – Zach Snyder
    (to be fair, he never specified what subjects those world-class historians specialized in…)

    Sure, it’s a notorious dumbass hyping his product, but it makes it fair to ding it for accuracy, I think. Though tbh that goes out the window when the horse-sized wolf makes an appearance.

    I’ll move my 300-specific shit to the 300 review – sorry Woman King!

  23. He said that? Ha ha ha.

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