MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Woman King’ and how it reimagines Africa’s past for a new global cinematic audience

Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it before on the big screen and I was just sitting in my seat in the movie theater transfixed to the screen and enjoying every minute of it.

As a person who grew up in the 80s and 90s watching Hollywood movies, there’s something magical and powerful about watching a film set in Africa, whose lead characters are African women, who command so much respect and admiration. Growing up, my idea of Africa had been shaped by the news and by Hollywood and it wasn’t until ‘Black Panther’ that I began to allow myself to think of Africa in a different light. The fact that it took producers Maria Bello, Cathy Schulman, and Viola Davis five years to get the movie greenlit by a major studio and only after the success of the MCU movie changed the way Hollywood would tell stories about Africa in a mainstream setting.

The story, about a general of an elite army of women warriors, is based on true accounts. The Agojie served as the inspiration for the women warriors the Dora Milaje of ‘Black Panther’ and were the elite forces of the king of the kingdom of Dahomey, which really existed for around 300 years. The fictional general, Nanisca (played by Viola Davis) must train a new generation of Agojie warriors while observing how the war between African kingdoms was fueled by the slave trade brought in by the Europeans. As Nanisca discusses geopolitics with her king, King Ghezo (a real-life figure and played with great charisma by John Boyega), Nawi (a new recruit and played with great depth and power by Thuso Mbedu) learns the ways of the Agojie.

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Photo: Columbia Pictures

If anything, ‘The Woman King’ is a straight-up epic action film, which many critics have likened to films like ‘Gladiator’ or ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ except with black women. There is ample time spent to establish the setting of this story – West Africa in 1823 – and impressing upon us the complex relationships between Nanisca and King Ghezo and Nanisca and the Agojie, most notably her closest friend Amenza (played by Sheila Atim). Nawi befriends her other new recruits as well as the veteran warrior Izogie (played by a scene-stealing Lashana Lynch) as they prepare for war with the Oyo Empire, who has been capturing the Dahomey people to sell as slaves to the Europeans.

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Photo: Columbia Pictures

There’s a good mix of story, action sequences, and just a general feast of the visual imagery of a prosperous African kingdom and a band of highly respected and feared warrior women. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it before on the big screen and I was just sitting in my seat in the movie theater transfixed to the screen and enjoying every minute of it.

The film never strays away from the issues of women – sexual assault, oppression, forced marriages – and it’s great to see the women fight back in such a ruthless and brutal manner that was so befitting of its time period. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who had directed ‘Old Guard,’ does an amazing job at balancing both the emotional elements of the story (that Davis, Mbedu, and Lynch have moments that can really pull at the heartstrings even if this is an action film through and through) and does splendid coverage of the battle sequences. You see the power and the speed of the movements. It’s beautiful in its ferocity. 

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Photo: Columbia Pictures

What it also manages to put into perspective is how the Europeans and the Americans have pit the African nations against each other by trading guns and wealth in exchange for African lives in the form of slaves. While there are historical inaccuracies depicted in the film regarding King Ghezo’s thoughts about slavery, what the film positions is that what has happened in the past was a travesty with unimaginable consequences. It resonates even until the present day as we see the sort of racial discrimination that is still happening in the US and for the mere fact that depictions of Africans like it has in the films ‘Black Panther’ and ‘The Woman King’ are very few and far between (and if there are, not as commercially available).

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Photo: Columbia Pictures

Representation matters because what we see in the cinema (or on the news) really becomes our only window to imagine what the rest of the world would look like or feel like. Without films like this, we’d always think of Africa as a struggling continent that needs “the white man’s help” even though history has told us that the west came and turned the continent over its head for its resources. While ‘Black Panther’ can help us imagine what an Africa undisturbed by Western imperialism could look like, ‘The Woman King’ can help us imagine what Africa may have been like before France colonized the Dahomey kingdom in 1863.

There are no white saviours in this story. And while this is a story about slavery, it’s not finding entertainment in the victimization of the African people but celebrating their fight against it. This is Africa – and African women – put front and center and if this is the trend of the kind of movies we will have moving forward then I’m so excited to see what other films we will get to see after this.

My Rating:

5 stars - Don't Look Up review

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The Woman King is now showing in cinemas nationwide. Buy your tickets here.

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The Woman King
Action, Drama, History
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