Basically: If you love the Dora Milaje then you’re ready for this half-accurate, half-romanticized action-drama about the warriors who inspired them. This is the Agojie—The Warrior Women of Dahomey.
Warrior Women are especially significant to me. My first googly-eyed moments with them were the fighters in The Shaw Brothers films. I don’t want to be clichéd but those women kicked ass. Not much later, my mother bought me a comic book with a big green heroic baddie on the cover. Her name was She-Hulk and I adored her. Soon there was Wonder Woman and Storm. I was enraptured. I wanted to be like them, but I didn’t guess they were real. That’s the thing about history, there is as much hidden as revealed.
By the time I was old enough to pay my own rent (late and teary-eyed) I knew better. I’d read about ‘woman kings’ (that’s right, many cultures didn’t have a word for “queen”). There were conquerors, generals, and traitors so treacherous they brought down regimes. Fierce women were the spice of all eras. Why weren’t we taught about them in school? I think you already know. And then I found an article on The Warrior Women of Dahomey: The Agojie. This military unit was brutal and skilled and—in service of their king—fully took part in the enslavement of other Africans. They were more than complicated, yet there was a spark there that called back to my younger years. I had to know more. Once I did, the idea of a movie about these women reshaped my imagination.
It’s been a long time coming but The Woman King has arrived and, damn, it’s amazing. The story focuses on Nanisca (Viola Davis), the general of The Agojie under the reign of King Ghezo (John Boyega). Of course, something or someone has to shake things up. Say hello to Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), our POV character who is as young, brash, rash, and reckless as you want her to be. But she isn’t Nanisca’s only problem. There is also the spiritual wound left by Dahomey forcing its own people into enslavement, combined with the unceasing advancements of Europeans and other enslavers from the Americas. If you thought this was going to be a one-note film then be prepared; it also reaches into Nanisca’s past (and it is nothing nice). Many of The Agojie share similar stories, those are the bonds that hold them together. The only thing left is to survive The Oyo Empire, the nation that had its foot on the necks of Dahomey and its pockets filled with the blood-stained wealth that bondage created.
How can a girlie win? Gina Prince-Bythewood’s epic is about to let us know if she can.
The Woman King is 2 hours and 14 minutes and you don’t even notice. What you feel is satisfied, because these filmmakers gift us with a historical action-drama that makes you want more and more. From the costuming, rich with the fabrics and dyes of the era, to the editing by Terilyn A. Shropshire and cinematography by Polly Morgan, this film is visually lush—bloody in places but fully a celebration of life in others. My applause goes to fight coordinator Filip Ciprian Florian because the battles and hand-to-hand sequences don’t just look real, you damn near get splattered with the sweat and the dust. And when the time comes you feel the tears too.
That’s because the cast is a study in magnificence. Yes, Viola—always Viola. She lives up to the title. So does Mbedu, but my affections must be shared. Sheila Atim as Amenza is the film’s pulse, a living conscious who lends her grace to Nanisca. She’s so good.
Now, give me a second to take a deep breath so I can praise Lyshana THEE Lynch aka Izogie with my entire chest. The adoration I have for this character ranks her among my all-time list of Women Warriors. There is a depth of emotion in the way Lynch holds Izogie’s body. In her facial expressions and the peeks inside her psyche, that we get when her mask of strength breaks. You see it all, even when there are no words. We never get Izogie’s backstory but it is there in every conversation, each swaggering smile, every shielded expression, in the love she gives her sisters, and in the way she fights. I am throwing roses at Lyshana Lynch’s feet—she is always great but this is something more, this performance is a thorn that buries itself in your heart and blooms.
That is the power of the storytelling in The Woman King. These characters are fully developed; they don’t all get their own arcs but the facets are very real. That is not to say they are entirely historically accurate. You have to understand, this is an action-drama and a romanticized version of The Agojie. I’m okay with that. In this country, monuments are erected for traitors and history is bent to erase the accomplishments of BIPOCs and women; why not meet The Agojie halfway between what they were and the idealized Dora Milaje?
I don’t have anything else to say about this film other than: Thank you, Gina and Viola and everyone involved. Thank you for bringing this long-time dream into vividly overflowing life.
In the End: See it as many times as your budget will allow, The Woman King gives us new heroes to cheer for and enough action to fuel new dreams.