If you’re looking for badass women based on historical figures, look no further than Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King. It is not often that a film focuses on Black women – specifically in a positive light – where they are wholeheartedly allowed to be themselves in every way. Well, The Woman King does just that as the entirety of the film is hinged upon the performances of its cast.
The Woman King begins in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey (currently present-day Benin), where the tensions between the Dahomey and Oyo Empires are at an all-time high. In addition to fighting with each other, both tribes have been playing a part in and becoming richer through the slave trade, selling the captives from their respective tribes to the highest European and American bidders. Despite all this, Dahomey’s king, Ghezo (John Boyega), is protected by an elite group of women warriors known as the Agojie under the command of general Nanisca (Viola Davis).
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s direction in The Woman King is nothing short of spectacular. As a fan and follower of her work since Love & Basketball, it’s been a delight to see this filmmaker’s growth from project to project and also see the themes of love and resiliency stay prominent throughout all of her work. Most importantly, though, Prince-Bythewood always puts a focus on Black women and this continues with The Woman King. With a screenplay by Dana Stevens, Prince-Bythewood directs this action-epic like there’s no tomorrow. Whether it’s a close-up of the warring emotions of a character on-screen or being made to feel like you’re part of fights and feats of athleticism, you’re pulled into every facet of the Agojie’s life. These crucial elements more than likely wouldn’t have been as impactful had this film had anyone other than a Black woman behind the camera.
Time and time again, Gina Prince-Bythewood gets the absolute best from her actors. Viola Davis is a force as the Agojie’s general, Nanisca. Whether teaching the new recruits, struggling with the Dahomey being active participants in the slave trade, or dealing with traumatic incidences of her past, Davis gives the world another award-worthy performance. In fact, every actress who is part of the Agojie in The Woman King are forces to be reckoned with. As the second-in-command, Izogie, Lashana Lynch shines. She is a complete scene-stealer and to be honest, Lynch never misses.
Lashana Lynch arguably carries the best performance in the film. From the first moment she appears on screen, she boasts phenomenal energy and her character will most certainly be an audience favorite. Lynch recently spoke to Vera magazine about it being her “absolute responsibility” to make sure that the women she portrays on film reach the community she cares about and wants to represent, and she does exactly that in The Woman King. As Izogie, Lynch is compelling, steadfast, and humourous – especially with new recruit Nawi (aptly played by Thuso Mbedu).
Lashana Lynch’s Izogie is intrinsically linked with Thuso Mbedu’s Nawi. The duo are dynamic as they play upon the mentor-mentee relationship throughout The Woman King. Not only do their interactions provide some of the film’s more comedic moments, but they also include some of the film’s more emotional beats too. Mbedu is stellar as the 19-year-old given to King Ghezo by her father when she refuses to enter into an abusive marriage. She is taken in as a potential new recruit for the Agojie and, immediately, Mbedu’s eyes and expressions tell a story.
Nawi is instantly enraptured by the world of the Agojie and wants to dedicate the rest of her life to the cause, however, she’s not without some missteps in which Nanisca must put her in her place or Izogie must teach her how things are done. Thuso Mbedu is pitch-perfect as the teenage recruit. In all of Nawi’s ups and downs in training and finding herself amongst the sea of powerful women she’s revered for so long, Mbedu makes sure that you can feel every single ounce of emotion every step of the way.
Rounding out the cast are Sheila Atim as Amenza and Adrienne Warren as Ode. Warren’s Ode was a recent captive by the Agojie – retaliation against the Mahi and Oyo Empire for capturing some of the Dahomey women as prisoners in a battle that was had off-screen. Atim’s Amenza is very much the voice of reason for the Agojie. There are similarities between Atim and Warren’s characters that speak to found family and the importance of it that will pull at the heartstrings. It’s also lovely to have Atim’s work as a singer showcased so beautifully in the film.
The Woman King is an excellently crafted historical epic, brought together by powerful performances, dynamic directing, and beautiful cinematography. Of course, with many films based on history, it is necessary to fill in the gaps in an effort to share a succinct story with the audience. Although the film does its best and importantly shares the role the Dahomey played in the Atlantic slave trade, some of the gap fillers – including the reasoning behind the end of the Dahomey participating in the slave trade – create some clunky parts narratively that could have been avoided. This small misstep aside, The Woman King is one of the best historical epic dramas in recent memory.
It’s extremely rare for Black women to be seen in the way they’re shown in The Woman King. What we typically get are watered-down images and controlled voices of Black women that fit the typical Hollywood narrative, which is still largely run and dictated by white men. Thankfully, The Woman King is a huge leap away from all of that. It’s clear that this film, from its inception seven years ago to its now global theatrical release, has been a hard-fought venture of love and an ode to Black women to be seen in a light that they’re often purposely pushed away from. The showcasing of Black women forging their own paths and sitting in their sisterhood is the most important thing The Woman King gives to its audience.