In recent years, we’ve seen quite a number of films coming out of Hollywood with a majority of African cast and story. Not only that, they’re featured as more of an uplifting and positive story about black people in Africa. This is in contrast to many decades of films about the slave trade and its brutalities. The Woman King is a film spawned from the success of films like Black Panther, The Lion King and others. At the same time, being Hollywood, the film runs a very close line to being over-the-top.
As a result of the above-mentioned, many have questioned the authenticity of the film’s historical elements and whether they’re suitably presented in the film. So, before we dive any further, let’s take a closer look at this matter.
If you’re simply watching the film without any background, you’ll be left finding it slightly out of place from what we’ve conventionally learned in history classes over the years. Some quick fact check, then?
1. Did Dahomey exist? Yes, the Kingdom of Dahomey existed in what is now Benin.
2. Did the Agojie exist? Yes, they did. The all-women, and warrior troops were the protectors of Dahomey. It was considered to be some 6,000 members strong at its peak.
3. Did the Oyo empire exist? Yes, this is also true. The Dohamey were a tributary to the Oyo.
4. Did King Ghezo exist? Yes. In fact, he was the king during the period in which the film takes place – 1823.
5. Did Dahomey have a Woman King? Yes, this was part of their custom and did have several Woman Kings during its time. They had high regard for women in their society.
In short, there are several historical accuracies about the film, the period, as well as the events that took place. However, the overall story did not play out as it did in The Woman King. The first of these is the turning away of the slave trade which presents one of the most positive aspects of the film.
The second of this is that the leading female characters presented in the film don’t have any historical background that has been documented. As such, the film presents a new story to its audience that aims to be an uplifting tale of overcoming and changing the old ways, rather than showcasing a historical drama.
The film sets its events in the early 1800s when a group of all-female warriors protect the African, Kingdom of Dahomey. These women, known as the Agojie, have all the necessary fighting skills and bravery to lead their people against any army formed against it. However, the Kingdom faces a new threat and a growing army of the Oho Empire, aiming to overthrow its gates and destroy their way of life. The Agojie set out to defend their Kingdom against this threat.
From a storyline perspective, it isn’t too far-fetched or convoluted. However, there are several stories that take place within The Woman King, which culminate into a tense and emotional experience as they become intertwined. The focus, as such, is more on the message it presents to the audience than on having several layers of plotlines that could dilute the end result. For the most part, it works.
The Woman King features stars from across multiple continents, including Oscar-winner, Viola Davis, as Nanisca whom the majority of the story revolves around. Her backstory is a bit condensed into some trauma, which set in motion events that lead to her joining and eventually leading the Agojie. While the background story falls a bit short, her character arc plays out well in the end. Starting off as a hardened leader who phrased the words “You are powerful, love makes you weak,” she softens up to a new recruit, Nawi, who is played by South African actress, Thuso Mbedu.
Nawi has joined the ranks as a recruit after being offered by her father after his attempts to sell her off for marriage were left fruitless. She is as stubborn in her training as she was with all her previous, potential suitors. Izogie (Lashana Lynch), a lieutenant in the Agojie army takes Nawi under her wing. While there are repeated attempts to get Nawi to toe the line and be part of the collective, she is also encouraged to find her own voice and path to greatness that she seeks.
While the Agojie are an all-women army, they still fight under a male King Ghezo (John Boyega). Boyega plays the role as an often-relaxed, comedic relief role, with tendencies to be quite stern when pressed. I can’t say that as a King he is vehemently respected, given that his orders are often disobeyed with a lack of punishment thereafter. At the very least, the King has charisma, and a touch of flair in his style but overall doesn’t seem to fit the narrative of a strong and ruthless nation aiming to bring peace to the region.
Another two characters worthy mentioning are Amenza (Sheila Atim) and Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya). Amenza is a sort of spiritual adviser to Nanisca who is constant battle with her inner demons and trauma from her past, specifically in the form of dreams. At the same time, she speaks candidly to Nanisca in approaching her troubles, more so than anyone else dares to without suffering the consequences.
Lastly, there’s Oba, the main antagonist of The Woman King. He fits the role of a typically bad guy. Not only does he want to destroy the Kingdom of Dahomey, with specific reference to the fact that they’re defended by women soldiers. Additionally, he also forms the bridge to the slave trade with the Portuguese to Brazil, capturing and selling off to the highest bidder. In all fairness, the port seems fairly diminutive in the grand scheme of things to be worthwhile enough a post to which sufficient slaves could be sold off. Oba as a character is very one-dimensional and no backstory is presented at all.
The group of characters from The Woman King are a bit of a mixed bag. Some performances are truly strong, while others fall flat and just tag along for the ride as part of the two main protagonists’ story.
Overall, The Woman King is a lot better than each of the various elements that make up the overall story. Looking at each individual performance and character and you’ll be left with about half of it being really worthwhile.
There is the love interest of Nawi that never develops beyond starry eyes and no great war at the end. From an action perspective, we get a few minutes of choreographed fighting, which at times is really good. With the main battle also over before it reaches its climax, as a viewer, you’re left wanting. These battles also don’t have much of an emotional attachment to them apart from showcasing the skills of the women fighters – which is great, nonetheless.
While I was caught up in the moment and heavily invested in the film throughout, upon sitting back and reflecting on it, I can’t help but feel quite a lot of potential was lost in the film. Irrespective of the director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, taking liberties with a creative licence on historical accuracy, it feels very Hollywood. It still delivers an inspirational and empowering story overall, but as a result, also lacks the authenticity needed to drive home that message.
While The Woman King is a worthwhile movie to see at the cinema, you’re left wanting more from this big-budget film. With a very good character arch and performances from the lead characters, there isn’t much to hold onto from the rest.