The Woman King first published by Sight & Sound, November edition 2022
Review: There is a paradox in the kenning-like title of this latest feature from director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees, 2008; Beyond the Lights, 2014; The Old Guard, 2020). A ‘woman king’ is surely a queen – but unlike Shantay (Jayme Lawson), the chief consort to King Ghezo (John Boyega) and a woman who very much desires the luxurious, sheltered life of a conventional queen, the Agojie, whose very name means ‘king’s wives’, in no way conform to the expectations of their gender, but rather are the king’s female guard, preferring the hardship and discipline of a warrior’s life to the sex, marriage, baby-making and domestic servitude that would otherwise be their lot. A ‘Woman King’, it will emerge, is a near-mythical status conferred upon a woman whom the king regards as his equal in counsel and vision. Equality, however, is an elusive idea here, under constant negotiation.
There are other paradoxes. For while The Woman King is set in a particular time and place – the West African Kingdom of Dahomey (in modern Benin) in 1823 – and while Ghezo was an actual king and the Agojie were an actual fighting force under him, other characters are more nebulous. The middle-aged Agojie general Nanisca (Viola Davis) is named for a real person, except that the latter joined the ‘Dahomey Amazons’ as a teenager over half a century later, in 1889. Similarly Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), the 19-year-old recruited to the Agojie after violently rejecting the older man whom her family has chosen to be her husband, is named for an actual woman said to have been the last surviving Agojie, who claimed to have fought as a teenager in the Second Franco-Dahomean War in 1892 (some 70 years after the film’s events), and who lived till 1979!
So Dana Stevens’ screenplay (from a story by Maria Bello) plays fast and loose with historical chronology, while even the recorded names Nanisca and Nawi are Anglicised versions, with no close equivalent in the local Fon language. Other characters, like Nanisca’s tough lieutenants Amenza (Sheila Atim) and Izogie (Lashana Lynch), or the Portuguese-Brazilian slaver Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) and his half-Dahomean companion Malik (Jordan Bolger), are fictions (although Ghezo did have close relations with the Brazilian slave trader Francisco Félix de Sousa). Even as the film concedes from the outset the uncomfortable truth that the real Dahomey under Ghezo was no less actively involved in slave-trading than its enemy the Oyo Empire, it also implies that by the film’s end, such practices, at Nanisca’s urging, would soon be replaced with palm oil production – whereas in reality, Ghezo was still selling into slavery both captives from raids (often conducted by the Agojie) and even Dahomey’s own citizens till the end of his reign three decades later. Let’s not even mention the mass human sacrifices carried out annually in the Kingdom – after all, the film does not mention them.
None of this really matters. For with its rape-revenge plotting (Nanisca’s opposition to the Oyo general Oba Ade, played by Jimmy Odukoya, is deeply personal), its improbable reunion of a long-estranged mother and daughter (complete with a mannered token of recognition), its emancipating romance and exploits of derring-do, The Woman King keeps reminding us that it is a myth, and that its play on history is exaggerated and idealised. Indeed its empowered women have not a little in common with the all-female militia (in fact modelled on the Agojie) in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) or the Amazon army in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017), making this a sort of superhero story avant la lettre set in an African past. Prince-Bythewood’s film is not so much accurately recreating the past as allegorising a timeless struggle – for liberation, for equality and for progress – and it creatively engenders a brief moment when men and women, white and black, find an agreeable accommodation with each other and together overcome oppression.
Certainly The Woman King is an adventure epic, full of vicious close-quarters battles and daring rescues, but it is also an exemplary intersectional feminist call to arms for the African sisterhood to keep building on the achievements of their female ancestors and to keep fighting – and dancing – as they did, or might have done, back in Dahomey, with or without the approval of their patriarch, in a film itself written, directed, shot and edited by an ensemble of women.
Synopsis: The Kingdom of Dahomey, 1823. As the Agojie, an élite cadre of warrior women, fight off incursions from the rival Oyo Empire’s general Oba Ade, their highly disciplined leader Nanisca has her traumatic memories triggered, and her sense of self challenged, by the arrival of determined teen recruit Nawi.
strap: Gina Prince-Bythewood’s epic merges real history and idealising fantasy to model an intersectional struggle for liberation, equality and progress