At the start of The Woman King, Viola Davis (Nanisca) lets out a war whoop that sends her all-female army into battle, mercilessly wielding spears and machetes. It takes nothing away from Davis’s typically fierce performance, as a fictional 19th-Century African general named Nanisca, that the film’s true star is its director. Gina Prince-Bythewood doesn’t make a wrong move as she orchestrates all the elements of this action-filled historical epic, filled with vivid characters and cultural resonance. Known for the character-driven Love and Basketball (2000) and the action movie The Old Guard (2020), Prince-Bythewood blends the strengths of both films to spectacular effect in The Woman King.
Set in 1823, the story draws on the history of Dahomey, the real West African kingdom that existed from the 17th-19th Centuries in what is now Benin. The Agojie, the women’s army guarding the king, was famous for its physical strength and ferocity. The Agojie also inspired the fictional Dora Milaje warriors in 2018’s Black Panther, which this new film inevitably brings to mind. But The Woman King, without Marvel superpowers, has a more serious tone and connection to history. What the films do share is a reverence for African culture.
After The Woman King’s opening battle against the Oyo, a tribe that captures other Africans to be sold as slaves, Prince-Bythewood takes us into the world of Dahomey. Every part of it is sharply detailed, from Nanisca’s hair in a curly Mohawk, to the decorative handles of the machetes and the small shells the women wear on their battle gear and braid into their hair. Its ruler, King Ghezo (John Boyega, with regal bearing), is inexperienced but smart enough to take some counsel from Nanisca.
She is the film’s soul, but she shares attention with several other distinctive characters. Lashana Lynch is Izogie, who goes into battle with a gleeful smile and fingernails sharpened to points, the better to poke an enemy’s eyes out. Yet she has an understanding side. Thuso Mbedu, such a discovery as Cora in The Underground Railroad (2021), is poignant and natural as Nawi. Her role is nearly as important as Davis’s and her character’s trajectory is the most dramatic. Nawi is a teenager who refuses to be married off to a middle-aged man who slaps her across the face at their first meeting, so her parents give her as a gift to the king, who allows her to become a warrior. But she must grow out of her arrogance, which is a reflection of Nanisca’s own.
Each of the major characters is deftly given a backstory, and some have secrets, filled in through bits of dialogue and shared confidences among the women. We learn that Nanisca was once captured by the Oyo, but escaped, a past that has left her with a thirst for justice and vengeance. She is hard-nosed in order to protect her soldiers. “Your tears mean nothing,” she tells Niwa. “To be a warrior you must kill your tears.” Yet Davis also creates softer moments, suggesting how much Nanisca’s toughness protects her from her painful past.
These woman are warriors, not saints. Historically, Dahomey flourished by taking captives and selling them, and the film doesn’t ignore that complicity. Instead, it enhances Nanisca’s role as heroine by making her the king’s conscience, telling him more than once that slavery is unnecessary and immoral, even if he is not trading his own people.
The Woman King is about strength and will, about independence and abolishing slavery, themes that Dana Stevens’ screenplay announces too bluntly at times. “We are the blade of freedom,” Nanisca yells, inspiring her troops into one more battle. But Prince-Bythewood never lets social themes get in the way of crowd-pleasing action. Especially in the film’s last section, the battles are relentless and kinetic, as the camera takes us inside the hand-to-hand combat, with warriors plunging spears into bodies and slicing throats. This is not benign, cartoonish action. There are Agojie deaths, the price of being a soldier.
In 2019, Black Panther star Lupita Nyong’o travelled to Benin for a television documentary about the real Agojie, Warrior Women with Lupita Nyong’o. She admires the Dahomey women’s strength while acknowledging what she calls their crimes of human trafficking, pointing to the need for truth as well as the part movies can play. “The role of fantasy is to create the heroes that we cannot have in the real world, because people are complicated,” she says. The Woman King leans toward fantasy in its heroic moments, but is rooted in truth about war, brutality and freedom. It is a splashy popcorn movie with a social conscience.