The Woman King strikes chords in the spirit of Black women because it celebrates the bond of loyalty, the energy of sisterhood and invokes a reawakening of the joy of authentically being seen and empowered.
It’s an historical action film shot in South Africa, inspired by the West African Kingdom of Dahomey’s notorious all-female contingent, the Agojie. It is 1823, and they are led by their revered and scarred general Nanisca played by Oscar®-winner Viola Davis.
King Ghezo (John Boyega) is faced with the Oyo Empire’s thirst for wealth and power. With a new misogynistic tyrant General Oba Ode (Jimmy Odukoya) at the helm, the young king must rely on advice from his council, lessons learned and the wisdom of his general.
Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director of cult classic Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees, and most recently The Old Guard, starts off her second action film with a quiet and fierce beauty. The tactical elements of the battle scenes have been inspired by one of her favourite movies, Braveheart, and the epic war scenes of Gladiator.
The culmination of her diverse experience in telling the stories of strong women makes her the ideal director to tell the first story of the Agojie warriors on film. Prince-Bythewood attributes the record-breaking box-office success of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther to paving the way in getting her film with a cast of all lead Black actors in the action genre made.
“Black Panther changed the game in Hollywood, and certainly changed it in terms of perception and Hollywood seeing our values – even though we’ve always seen it.” Prince-Bythewood told Metacritic during the TIFF premiere.
In an Empireonline interview, Prince-Bythewood says, The Woman King is “Ours.” It is our call to action in telling our stories from our gaze.
The film underscores the physical strength, vulnerability, and beauty of Black women, specifically dark-skinned Black women, who are not seen as capable of selling seats by Hollywood decision-makers.
Her strength as a storyteller lies in her ability to select projects that explore more complex motivations for female characters. She peels back the layers of relationships that shape women and does not solely rely on their romantic interests. Love & Basketball dealt with Monica’s love for Quincy. Still, Prince-Bythewood placed equal importance on her love and passion for basketball in the film, highlighting the hard choices women must make between what they want and what society expects of them.
In The Woman King we encounter the resilient teenager Nawi, played by Thuso Mbedo (The Underground Railroad) who must make similar choices. Nawi’s relationship with her elders is strained. Similarly, interactions between the Agojie warriors of different generations are charged with layers of emotions typically underserved in stories told in this genre for women.
While the desires of the new recruits are voiced with the passion of naivety, Prince-Bythewood mirrors both the wishes and regrets of the warriors through the eyes of the seasoned Agojie who have learned to kill their tears. This intergenerational conflict moves the story forward.
BAFTA rising star winner Lashana Lynch’s portrayal of Izogie, the dynamic and inspiring trainer of the next generation of recruits, is captivating. Her charm and presence in this role highlight her undeniable charisma on screen and showcases why she was cast as the first Black female agent 007 in the 60-year history of the James Bond series of films. Two-time Laurence Olivier Award winner and Bruised actor Sheila Atim portrays the enigmatic Amenza, the spiritual advisor. She is the trusted confidant and sounding board for Nanisca (Davis), the legendary general fraught with war wounds.
The score (Terrence Blanchard) enhances the underlying conflicting emotions within the unit’s women, allowing the viewer to feel compassion for the characters.
On the day of the TIFF premiere interviews, the cast spoke about their undeniable chemistry, fostered by the tone set by Davis, a producer on the film and Prince-Bythewood, who was hired after her passion for the story was released with tears. She encouraged the actors to do their own stunts. Each of them, including Prince-Bythewood, trained a minimum of five hours daily for months. Not only were they in top physical condition for their roles, but they also developed an understanding, at the cellular level, of the sacrifices of a warrior.
Director of Photography Polly Morgan took great care to showcase their powerful muscles glistening while dancing and in combat, without overexposing their features. She was intentional with highlighting the beauty of their skin against the contrasting red earth of the African soil.
John Boyega’s ability to transcend himself in this role allows the audience to witness and consider how two things can be true. Deemed a well-intentioned and progressive King, he can also be plagued with a patriarchal ideology. Without being aware of how it presents itself through ego or pride, the reigning king makes decisions from his own perception without recognizing the need for a broader perspective.
The calibre of the acting is undeniable. The notion that moviegoers are unable to suspend their disbelief and root for these athletic, vulnerable, fierce, beautiful women stems from an ideology that this film aims to reframe. We should all celebrate the melanin factor in this long-awaited release, as well as the abounding talent and skill that draws audiences to the theatres.