One of the many benefits of inclusion is the ability to learn about historical events that have never before been chronicled on the big screen.
Background: During the 19th century, the militaristic African kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) was known for seizing men, women and children from neighboring tribes, establishing a reputation as a major supplier of slaves, trading them for goods like gunpowder, tobacco and alcohol. But then the Agojie, Dahomey’s women warriors, convinced their ruler to trade palm oil instead of captives.
Set in 1823, this story follows Nawi (Thuso Mbebu), a rebellious Dahomey teenager who refuses an arranged marriage; infuriated, her father forces her to join warrior force known as the Agojie.
(Historical fact: from the 1600s to 1904, there was an imposing, all-female regiment, the Agojie. Recalling Greek mythology, Europeans who encountered them called them Amazons.)
Commanded by ferocious General Nanisca (Viola Davis), the Agojie were at war with the Oyo Empire that was determined to destroy the reign of King Ghezo (John Boyega). Under General Nanisca’s strategic leadership, Nawi and other young recruits endure rigorous hand-to-hand training, twirling ropes and using weapons that resemble heavy, curved machetes while crawling over prickly acacia trees.
Fiercely determined Nawi not only proves herself in battle but also manages to upset the General’s usual equilibrium by stubbornly questioning tribal traditions and holding clandestine meetings with Malik (Jordan Bolger), a Portuguese explorer with Dahomey roots.
Working from a jumbled, often overly melodramatic script by Maria Bello and Dana Stevens, director Gina Prince-Blythewood (The Old Guard) delivers a rousing, action-packed adventure, reminiscent of spectacles like Gladiator and Braveheart with the fresh, contemporary diversity of Black Panther.
Credit cinematographer Polly Morgan, production designer Akin McKenzie and costumer Gersha Phillips for creating a meticulously detailed West African world.
Yet the drama is singularly propelled by Oscar-winner Viola Davis, who – after arduous weightlifting and martial arts training – embodies the ruthless, yet protective General with multi-layered intensity.
On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, The Woman King is a sumptuous 7, now playing in theaters.