Over the course of her illustrious career, Viola Davis has starred in multiple critically acclaimed projects where she has routinely proven her incredible calibre. However, it can definitely be argued that none of them has been as explosive and dynamic as her latest performance in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new historical epic – The Woman King.
Fans of the Marvel fantasy-adventure Black Panther will remember the imperious female bodyguards of the king of the fictional nation Wakanda, loosely based on actual figures from African history. The Woman King was inspired by the same real-life warriors: the Agojie, a highly adept all-female army which protected both the king and lands of the former kingdom Dahomey (which occupied what is now Benin). This elite band of unparalleled warrior women seems, at first glance, like an unlikely comic-book invention, but it was real. Known to European traders as the Dahomey Amazons, the Agojie, who dedicated their lives to honing their skills in every possible form of combat, were a respected part of the Dahomey government and revered by the residents. As a UNESCO document notes: “These fearsome women soldiers surpassed their male counterparts in courage and effectiveness in combat,” including their success in two wars against France. The Agojie army, which at one point reached a force of four thousand women, ended only with the dissolution of the kingdom of Dahomey around 1900.
It is a sensational bit of history which seems designed for the movie screen, and it captured the attention of actress Maria Bello, who conceived the basic storyline, which was turned into a screenplay by established scriptwriter Dana Stevens. At a TIFF panel discussion, the director mentioned that the film took about six years of repeated refusals to finally find acceptance from a studio, noting that, in her experience, films featuring Black women are typically difficult to get made. The project began to move forward when esteemed actress Viola Davis accepted the central role, and it was Davis’ casting as fictional Agojie leader Nanisca that was the making of the film. Viola Davis brings not only her typically excellent performance to the role but also a powerful screen presence which makes the Agojie’s devotion to their general, their cohesion, their confidence, and the king’s trust in them makes perfect sense. Davis is stern but inspiring as the dedicated military leader, and scenes which focus on her are memorable. A high point of the film is Nanisca’s pre-battle speech, delivered by Davis with a perfect balance of subdued emotion and steely resolve that resonated with the entire audience.
The Woman King does not pretend to be dramatised history. The Agojie, and details of their lives, are real, and the essential facts about Dahomey are accurate, but the individual characters, apart from young King Ghezo (John Boyega), are invented. The story begins in 1823, five years into the reign of Ghezo, a period chosen by the writers because it was after the international slave trade had been outlawed in England and officially discontinued in the US. An illegal slave trade persisted, however, and this is the basis for much of the political storyline.
The main protagonist, through whose eyes we are introduced to the Dahomey royal court and its soldiers, is a teenage girl named Nawi (beautifully played by Thuso Mbedu). Cast out by her father for rebelliousness, she is turned over to the king and taken in to be trained by the Agojie. Nawi’s training and education, her newfound self-assurance, a new awareness of the world, and the friendships she forms in the women’s army, comprise much of the story – particularly her growing admiration for her brusque training supervisor, Izogie (Lashana Lynch), and for the army’s commander, Nanisca. Additional drama comes from conflict with a rival nation and uneasy relations with European slave traders. Local nations, including Dahomey, had been in the habit of selling criminals and prisoners of war as slaves. Still, at this stage, the Dahomey court is shown as divided on the wisdom of continuing this practice – a bit of history which is handled with understandable caution.
Seen purely as an action movie, The Woman King is an unqualified success. From the first, quietly menacing appearance of Naniska and her army in the film’s first few moments, through the many precisely choreographed but graphically violent battles, there is hardly a false note. The Agojie are fierce and magnificent, without coming across as mythical; they are all fully human, with a normal range of human emotions, despite their careful self-discipline. Scenes of their intense, multi-faceted training make clear the extensive preparation which makes them so incredibly effective. It is worth noting that almost nothing in the film, including the battle scenes, is done through CGI, and according to the director, there was virtually no use of stunt doubles. Director Prince-Bythewood explained that she wanted the greatest possible realism in these scenes and fully human heroes. She wanted the individual characters, including their unique movements, bodies, and individual ways of fighting, to be recognisable – something that came across during celebration scenes, in which the soldiers’ dancing was reminiscent of their movements in battle. This required a great deal of pre-filming work for the female cast, who had to train intensively, both to build up their strength and stamina and to learn the basics of martial arts under an instructor. The Agojie battle scenes, as a result, are live-action and believable, almost entirely done by the actual cast.
he casting itself is excellent, dominated by Viola Davis as the prevailing and influential character of Naniska, but down to even the minor cast members. The direction is equally impressive as the multi-award-winning director Gina Prince-Bythewood gets the utmost out of the cast, and does an admirable job maintaining suspense when needed, making the many battle scenes both horrific and glorious, allowing the women soldiers to be at once larger than life heroes, and fully human, aided by expert cinematographer Polly Morgan (who worked on Where the Crawdads Sing, A Quiet Place II).
The film’s weak point is the script itself. The screenplay does well in representing Dahomey, its government, and the Agojie, balancing drama with realism. It also manages the problematic matter of trade with Europe, including the illicit slave trade, and the varying opinions on the matter with great delicacy and allowing for nuance. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t know when to stop expanding. A storyline which begins with a little-known kingdom guarded by fearless ‘amazons’, involved in dangerous local and international conflicts, including human trafficking, and applying a number of strong and complex characters, is already a fairly full plate.
The script, unfortunately, goes on to add an array of personal sub-plots, including stories of revenge, sexual assault, improbably discovered long-lost relatives, a brief, tacked-on illicit romance, and much more, some of the additional material written with a sentimentality that is out of place with the main body of the film. The busy storyline is not enough to ruin the movie, but it does introduce some mere distractions that could have been better done or omitted altogether.
Finally, the soundtrack, by award-winning musician and composer Terence Blanchard, reflects or sustains the mood of each scene perfectly, carefully balancing standard background mood music with the distinctive sounds of traditional Benin music, including some wonderful pieces performed by the South African Choir – the entire soundtrack available as a digital album. The end-credits song, ‘Keep Rising,’ (released prior to the film as a digital single) is particularly memorable and a perfect conclusion for the film. It is performed by brilliant Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo, who composed the piece along with Jessy Wilson and Jeremy Lutito. Kidjo also has a small role in the film as a member of the king’s household.
All in all, The Woman King is an exciting, action-packed, history-based melodrama with a new and unusual setting, gorgeous look and sound, and dynamic performances – but with occasional jarring flaws in the script. Newly released to cinemas, it is offered in IMAX at some locations, and it’s a film that would benefit from that kind of viewing experience.