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- Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
- Writers: Dana Stevens (screenplay), Maria Bello (story)
- Cinematographer: Polly Morgan
- Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing
- Released: September 9, 2022 (TIFF), September 16, 2022 (U.S.)
- Runtime: 135 minutes
Set in the 1800s, Nawi is a headstrong young girl who rejects forced marriage. Because of this, her guardian gives her to the Agojie, formidable women warriors of the Dahomey tribe, which is where she meets others with a fighting spirit like herself.
Nawi climbs through the ranks and slowly proves her competence. Her prowess catches the attention of Nanisca, the leader of the elite, all-female battalion. Together they must face off against the rival Oyo tribe, who are working relentlessly to monopolise the slave trade. The choice is simple: freedom or death.
Too Much Emphasis on Viola Davis
Don't get me wrong, Viola Davis is amazing. Her performances over the years have earned her multiple acting awards and a reputation as one of the best in the business.
My problem isn't with Viola Davis the actor. It's that her character, Nanisca, carries too much of the plot. I get that she is the main protagonist and the face of the film, but there are other characters who also have interesting stories and whose growth would've been nice to experience.
Nanisca's past is heart-wrenching and all too real, but I wanted to know more about Amenza and Izogie.
African Slave Trade
Although a few things were omitted, the film's premise was rooted in reality. The events were based on true events with a few details glossed over.
King Gezo (John Boyega), ruler of the West African Dahomey tribe, was based on a former monarch by the same name, who ruled from 1818 to 1858. He was the ''Commander In Chief '' of both the fierce male and female warriors who led Dahomey to freedom.
Funded by Europeans, Propagated by Africans
The African slave trade was obviously funded by European colonizers, but it was internally propagated by a few different African tribes. The Dahomey were no exception. The Agojie would lead raids into neighboring villages, like the Mahee, and capture members. They'd then exchange the people for weapons from White Europeans.
The Agojie eventually changed their strategy, either out of a moral shift or a change of leadership. The tribe advocated for palm oil to take the place of slaves and received support and backlash equally from the members of the tribe and Council.
Agojie Were Home For African Women
The Agojie were no myth and before their formal disbandment in 1894, they were a home for women who had no home, whose lives were fractured beyond repair, and who were by all accounts different and unique.
Viola Davis is best known for playing Annalise Keating on How To Get Away With Murder, a drama series that ran from 2014 to 2020. She won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2015.
Davis is also known as Amanda Waller in the DCU films—The Suicide Squad movie series, in particular—and she's reprised her role in movies like Black Adam (2022).
Her portrayal of Nanisca, fierce yet haunted, was spot on, bringing the edge and tone we all know and love from her previous roles. She's teaching African history to a generation that desperately needs it.
Hero Fiennes Tiffin
We all have a boogeyman; a figure in the dark who haunts us from the shadows and whose hands reaches across time to give us the chills. Nanisca is no exception. For centuries, there was little criticism of Europeans in Africa, especially West Africa. How did colonization affect the individual African?
Nanisca at first glance is bold and has a dominant energy, a wall that feels right with her character and personality. This wall crumbles around her first mate, Amenza, and we get to see the real Nanisca. It's another addition to the Viola Davis Gallery of Awesomeness.
It is through the interactions of Amenza and Nanisca that we see the general's wall finally fall. It reveals a past that Nanisca must face and a beast she must slay.
Agojie Flawed, But Human
The Dahomey Amazons seemed to have it all: sisterhood, rank, reputation, and the King's support. But like all human beings, they were incomplete, and that made them relatable.
In a memorable scene Nawi asks the Leaders of the Agojie why the male warriors are allowed to marry and sire children, but they are not. It's one of those questions that sticks with you and I think the fact we never got an answer is beautifully poetic.
Izogie (Lashana Lynch), the second in command after Nanisca, has her heart set on becoming the next female general. However, she's left speechless when Nawi bombards her with questions about whether her life would be fulfilled without love. Perhaps this is why Nawi decides to find answers for herself.
A title like The Woman King—let alone the trailer—promises action. Part of me was afraid that the fights between the Oyo and the Dahomey would be subpar and embarrassing. They were not.
Whether it was a sparring scene, a one-on-one fight or a full-on battle, the actors held their own. The movements coordinated and real, a product of the grueling exercises and martial arts training the cast underwent for three months.
I would honestly recommend this film to anyone, if not for the outstanding plot and it's historical accuracy, then for the realistic and well-shot action scenes.
Nawi Based on Real Person
The Woman King tried it's best to keep reality alive and where it wasn't possible, the writers effectively fictionalized history. Nawi, Nanisca, Izogie, and Amenza weren't meant to be exact replicas of historical figures. They were combinations of Agojie warriors throughout different periods.
The last survivor of the Agojie—who went by the name of Nawi, coincidentally enough—passed on in 1978. Just like her counterpart in the movie, she is thought to have taken on her tribe's adversaries. Even though she lost her sisters, she emerged from the battlefield alive, and that was victory enough.
The Woman King is a historical gem. Viola Davis' performance is impeccable, I just wish she didn't have to carry so much of the plot. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood struck a nice balance between true historical events and what this generation desperately needs to see.
A timeless African film.
© 2022 Sean M Pertet