A battle epic in the vein of Braveheart and Gladiator, The Woman King is based on the Agojie, the women warriors of the Kingdom of Dahomey in 19th century Western Africa (the territory of Dahomey now lies within Benin). Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Dana Stevens—with a story credit going to producer Maria Bello, who conceived the project after learning of the Agojie in 2015—The Woman King tells the story of Nawi (Thuso Mbedu, The Underground Railroad), a 19-year-old whose adoptive father dumps her off at the palace after she refuses the marriage he arranged for her. The intent is to make Nawi a servant or a concubine, but she is instead inducted into the Agojie, and she trains to become one of the elite warriors known to Europeans as “Dahomey Amazons”.
Dahomey has a new king, Ghezo (John Boyega), who wants to get his kingdom out of the slave trade while simultaneously protecting his people from being captured by the rival Oyo Empire and subsequently sold into slavery. The film opens with Nanisca, played by Viola Davis, and the Agojie attacking an Oyo village that is housing Dahomey hostages bound for the coast, and you can immediately see Prince-Bythewood applying lessons learned from The Old Guard here. The action scenes in The Woman King are excellent, well-choreographed and executed, featuring lots of bone-crunching finishing moves, albeit toned down for general audiences. The opening attack sequence reminded me of The Northman, minus the gore.
Once she begins training, Nawi is taken under the wing of Izogie (Lashana Lynch), a stand-out fighter among the battalion. Viola Davis is the Oscar winner in the bunch, and she’s Viola Goddamn Davis, so she is toplining the film, but the story really belongs to Nawi. Through her eyes, we learn the ways of the Agojie, which includes forsaking men and children and all the usual trappings of feminine life. The Agojie live in a secluded portion of the palace, and the Dahomey people are prevented from looking at them, but it is clear how revered they are, just as it is clear that Dahomey having a female fighting force is unusual in Western Africa. The Dahomey also have a position called “the woman king”, who is meant to rule alongside the king but does not necessarily have to be his wife. The tradition is meant to honor the brother-sister gods worshipped by the Dahomey, and Ghezo is on the brink of choosing Nanisca as his woman king when everything goes to sh-t.
Portuguese slavers arrive from the coast, including the smarmy Santo (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) and the handsome Malik (Jordan Bolger), who is biracial. His mother was a Dahomey woman captured and sold, and since her death, he wants to see her homeland, of which he heard many stories. Of course, he and Nawi have a little flirt, and implied more, because The Woman King is designed to be a crowd-pleaser, so someone has to have a romantic subplot, and apparently, we’re all going to ignore that Izogie and Amenza (Sheila Atim, FINALLY getting a role worthy of her ability) are clearly a couple. Mbedu and Bolger don’t have much chemistry, but fine, whatever, Nawi and the well-meaning himbo carry the romance.
With the Oyo teaming up with tribute kingdoms and backed by the Portuguese, things seem hopeless for the outnumbered, literally outgunned Dahomey. But Nanisca is a wily commander and comes with a plan—borrowing an idea from Nawi, naturally—to defend Dahomey from outside their walls against the greater force. There are shades of 300 here, though The Woman King is better about wearing its sentimentality openly and not burying it under a metric ton of toxic masculinity. Because despite the many fight scenes, The Woman King IS sentimental, it’s definitely going for the heart strings, though the results are uneven. Some of the emotional payoffs land, but others feel more contrived. There is a subplot between Nanisca and Nawi that isn’t really necessary, we buy into the camaraderie and sisterhood of the Agojie simply by watching them fight, train, and laugh together. We don’t need borderline hacky contrivances to raise the emotional stakes, they’re already pretty goddamned high. If the Dahomey lose this fight, they will literally all be enslaved, no more motivation is required.
But The Woman King is the sort of widely appealing action movie that doesn’t get made much anymore—at least without superheroes attached—and these kinds of movies often use cliché relationships to increase the emotional stakes. Braveheart, for instance, turned an infant French princess into a hot lady solely so Mel Gibson could have a romantic plot after William Wallace’s wife is murdered. The Woman King isn’t guilty of anything pretty much every other movie in the genre isn’t also guilty of. And it does many things as good as, or even better than, other battle epics, with the added bonus of focusing on a time and place we don’t usually see depicted in mainstream Hollywood films, which sets it apart in its genre. The Woman King is a rousing battle epic that wears its heart on its sleeve.
The Woman King will be exclusively in theaters from September 16, 2022.