Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood | Written by Dana Stevens and Maria Bello | 135 min | ▲▲▲▲△
Watching this romantic epic was accompanied by a sudden and uncomfortable realization of how little I know about African history. I had heard that the female warriors of a pre-colonial African empire inspired the Dora Milaje of Black Panther, but I don’t know a whole lot else beyond the way European nations pillaged the continent for its resources, human and otherwise.
A brief Google search reveals some who find the history presented here to be of the Hollywood variety, ie. creatively adapted from the facts for the purposes of a good story. This while the filmmakers defend both their research and where they chose to fictionalize the narrative.
I’m still not entirely sure what’s fact and what’s fiction, but I know I’ve seen a rousing and involving picture that, while cleaving to narrative cliches, delivers big-time entertainment.
It depicts the Agojie, also known as the Dahomey Amazons, tough-as-nails all-female warriors serving the African nation’s king in the early 1800s. The Agojie are led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis, her immense presence the centre of the film), who raid the slaver camps of neighbouring nations, including their overlords, the Oyo Empire, freeing captives. Young women are looking to join the Agojie, and prominent among the newest crop is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a Dahomey girl whose father is tired of trying to marry her off to men only to find her entirely unwilling. She’s obstinate and determined to be a soldier instead, which is noted by General Nanisca and Izogie (Lashana Lynch, the MVP here), an Agojie lieutenant.
The question remains whether the Dahomey and their king, Ghezo (John Boyega), will pay tribute to the Oyo and keep the peace, or go to war with the much larger empire and its hissible warlords, like Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya). This while the Portuguese are busy running the slave trade, including Santo (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) whose pal is a Brazilian with roots in Dahomey, Malik (Jordan Bolger).
Structurally, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before. At times the plot developments feel painfully predictable — you can see them coming up around the bend, they announce themselves. We also have almost everyone speaking English with West African accents, the Hollywood accent trope that I’ve often railed against. Give me the way they did Paths Of Glory and The Death Of Stalin instead any day.
But it’s easy to forgive these issues when you consider the groundbreaking aspects of this production. This is the anti-Tarzan, an historical epic featuring characters — African women — front and centre, leading the action as the physical and emotional heroes. They’re very much human beings — full of anger, love, fear, doubt, and regret. The ensemble character work demands attention and carries the day.
And the action mostly works — the sound editing and foley is especially impressive, if not the visual gore, which is dialled down despite the tactical and frequent use of machetes.
The themes embedded in this story are vivid, and the richness of the performances lifts it beyond its plotting predictability and simple good vs evil tropes. There’s a balance achieved between hoary and passionate where the recipe for crowd pleasing is reached.
My main gripe with the picture actually has to do with the final disposition of Davis’ character. She isn’t necessarily free of the patriarchal influences and certain compromises are made. If the film was really serving up wish fulfillment something a little further in the leadership stakes would’ve been welcome.
Despite all that, there’s no denying the many ways The Woman King works and works well. And a tip of the blade to A History of Violence actor Maria Bello, now a full-on screenwriter.