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The Woman King (2022) | Review

By Emma Chen

The Woman King is the historical epic film that you would not expect. Set at the beginning of the 19th century, it follows the adventures of the Agoje—the powerful, all-female warrior unit of the kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa. The army is led by general Nanisca (Viola Davis), who fiercely leads the conflict against their neighbour reign Oyo, who have become stronger and richer by selling prisoners as slaves to Portuguese white men. Eventually, we acknowledge that the war is not between the two African reigns—even though a good part of the film consists of battles between them—but that the real enemy to fight is the slave trade itself and the men who pursue it.

However, the film is not only about battles. What differentiates it from other classical epic films is the underlying story of female empowerment, friendship, and motherhood. Next to Nanisca, we see well-rounded female characters like Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a young and brave girl offered to the army by her father after her constant refusal of marriage; Izogie (Lashan Lynch), the strong and funny warrior who takes Nawi under her wing and makes her a soldier; and Amenza (Sheila Atim), Nanisca’s confidante and second-in-command. The film explores the relationships between them, their past and unspoken fragilities and how Agoje united them as a family. We gradually empathise with their struggles and watch with bated breath during the violent fights against Oyo.

Courtesy of IMDb

All the actresses do a good job in developing relatable and realistic characters, but Viola Davis is especially magnificent in her role. She brings a level of depth and regality to it that is a testament to the behind-the-scenes work done by the actress to embody the general Nanisca— the great warrior, but also the mother, and the woman.

I don’t need to explain the importance of a film written by two women (Dana Stevens and Maria Bello) and directed by a woman (Gina Prince-Bytherwood) whose cast mainly consists of black women. However, in honour of Black History Month, I want to emphasise the excellent representation that The Woman King is for black people, especially black girls. While portraying a history of the slave trade and tribe conflicts, it focuses on the power that the community of Agoje holds, from their physical strength to their bravery, without making it feel forced or fake. All these women have suffered and have turned their pain into an ancestral force that guides them to victory against enemies; it is truly inspiring to watch them do that.

In a story that screams woman empowerment, I found superfluous the ‘love story’ between Nawi and Malik, a half-Dahomey half-Portuguese man whose family made a fortune through the slave trade. The scenes involving the two are neither romantic nor thematically important enough to be justified. Instead, they just shift the attention from Nawi’s courage and abilities to the ‘man who helps her’, which I found unnecessary and a bit irritating at times


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