With The Woman King, Gina Prince-Bythewood shows that stories like the Benin Agojie warriors are indeed suited for a global audience.
A fascinating aspect of film history is how western literature, history, culture, and even western society, in general, have informed the kinds of African stories retold on the global screen. In recent times, African stories which had never been able to penetrate foreign markets are now beginning to get global attention, and those stories are now being exported to a global audience. One such story is The Woman King, an epic story about the unrelenting strength of the female warriors of Dahomey, a country in West Africa.
When one considers the role played by the Agojie warriors, an all-woman group of soldiers sworn to honor and sisterhood, from the West African kingdom of Dahomey, it's natural that Gina Prince-Bythewood crafted a tale about them. The film begins with a thrilling opening battle scene, introducing a menacing Viola Davis as she portrays the character Nanisca, the world-weary Agojie general, who emerges with an entire platoon behind her to free their imprisoned kin, the warriors fight the men with the women unharmed. In the process of fighting the prisoners, Nanisca loses many comrades and she decides to train a new group.
While searching for recruits, defiant teenager Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), is offered up as a gift to the young King Ghezo (John Boyega) by her father who is frustrated by her constant refusal to marry her many suitors. Nawi is noticed by the unflinching yet fun warrior Izogie (Lashana Lynch) notices Nawi’s resistance as a strength and enlists her in Nanisca’s training. While being part of the Agojie promises freedom to all involved, when they go to war the defeated are offered as tribute to the draconian Oyo Empire, who then sells them off as slaves to Europeans in exchange for guns.
This circle of oppression by the Oyo Empire is what Nanisca wants the King to break. The introduction of the Oyo empire to the storyline of this project is what introduces us to the two main villains: Oba played by Nigerian actor Jimmy Odukoya, a ruthless leader of the powerful Oyo Empire who has organized other tribes against Dahomey, and Nanisca seems to have a personal reason for wanting his head on a pole. Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), a white slave trader who speaks Portuguese, seeks to bring back strong Black laborers to Brazil.
While the presence of Jimmy Odukoya in this motion picture creates room for actual representation from west Africa to authenticate the story alongside exceptional supporting performance. Prince-Bythewood presented an Africa that is true itself by telling an African story from an actual African perspective, but as the story progresses one might question if the screenplay by Dana Stevens truly represents the African reality as it strategically downplays Dahomey’s practice of capturing and enslaving others. Still, quite understandably if they are presented otherwise, the plot would have surely complicated the more admirable dimensions of this historical drama.
The story also provides a soft side to Nawi’s defiant character as she seems to have a huge crush on Malik (Jordan Bolger) who returns to discover his roots. Malik’s character in the story intends to test her loyalty to the Ajogie Clan who are to abstain from any form of a romantic relationship and Nawi who expresses her ability to love also proves that she has a greater cause and navigates the situation gracefully.
As an ensemble, the actors in this movie excel both individually and collectively in the portrayals of their characters, Lashana Lynch gave a formidable performance as her character unravels different layers that put the audience at the center of her world. Jimmy Odukoya also proves that he is made for the big leagues as he stands toe to toe with all the actors and gives a worthy delivery for every screen time. John Gboyega channels his real-life father in his African king character delivery and this pays off well. The Script was well written and the pacing was smooth. The fight sequences were intense and believable which goes to show the extra time put in to perfect the rigorous physical training for the cast. Additionally, the strategic use of the African English accent honors the African heritage while making it understandable to international audiences.
While The Woman King is quite entertaining, it is not without hiccups as well. Visual effects are overused for landscapes, and the poor use of background actors makes the project look limited and small in scope and scale. The villains led by Oba weren't a formidable opposition but cinematographer Polly Morgan compromises with better fight choreography.
With The Woman King, Gina Prince-Bythewood shows that stories like the Benin Agojie warriors are indeed suited for a global audience as the film pulls off a surprising opening weekend revenue of 19 million US dollars despite opening in few countries on the 16th of September and it’s with great hopes that African filmmakers see this a nudge to tell authentic African stories for Africans and the world at large.
The Woman King is currently showing in Cinemas.