Viola Davis (Fences) has proven to be one of the most versatile, prolific, and influential actresses in Hollywood of the past decade.
This multi-award winner’s influence has led to many stories being told that may not have been given notice without her influence. Unsurprisingly, she got the biographical interpretation of the Agojie, the all-female warrior unit from the nation of Dahomey, produced for cinemas. This group of women can be credited with being the inspiration behind Black Panther‘s all-female special forces unit, the Dora Milaje.
Set in the early 1800s, Davis plays General Nanisca, who is the tribal leader of this unique warrior class. She and her army fight for King Ghezo (John Boyega) of the Dahomey nation. These powerful women do all they can to keep warring tribes from invading their borders and kidnapping their people. As each new generation of soldiers is trained, there is always a handful who stand out from the rest. The determined soul named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) is in the latest group. This aggressive and intelligent young woman gets the attention of the Agojie leadership team. She is taken under the wing of the seasoned warrior, Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and all three women realise they are all going through transitions in their lives and must determine what they can do to contribute to this warring class of women.
One of the essential means of trade within their country is found in the slave trade. Many African leaders use this economic opportunity to kidnap and ship their enemies to Europe and the Americas. General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya) leads the Oyo people and has targeted the Dahomey tribe for kidnapping and to make an alliance with Brazilian slave traders. This has prompted General Nanisca to work with her people and king to determine how they could keep this enemy from destroying their nation and keep her forces alive. As the story begins to mix politics, ethics, economies, and family ties, the leader must determine where her loyalties lie and who to trust in the future.
On one level, The Woman King is an engaging retelling of history that capitalises on an excellent central cast. Davis, Mbedu, and Lynch are the trifecta that makes the strength of this story convincing and compelling through to the final curtain. While Sheila Atim, as Amenza, the General’s leading counsel, gives this war-torn group of women a heart and humanises their purpose. As convincing in their roles as the antagonists, Jimmy Odukoya and Hero Fiennes Tiffin as the leading slave trader, both deliver the smarminess needed to represent this despicable slave trade. These performances, along with the convincing role of the king played by John Boyega, make for a compelling action-drama with a treasure trove of layers for the viewer.
Slave Trade: A Mixed History
Unfortunately, this fictionalised account of African history may cause some to reconsider watching this as actual events. The nation of Dahomey, the Agojie, and King Ghezo were real. Yet, their past may have been given an extra dose of sanitising to appeal to modern audiences. This people group was known for their brutal treatment of surrounding tribes and their wealth was built upon the trading of slaves until King Ghezo’s death. General Nanisca did not exist, but can be credited to being an amalgamation of different leaders throughout the country’s past. Even though the title and story are based on this captivating and inspirational leader, in reality her story did not play a factor in actual history. If anyone takes any time to dig into Dahomey’s past, there is less to celebrate and more to scrutinise.
As entertainment, The Woman King is one of cinemas’ most nuanced and engaging films this year. Still, as history, Nanisca’s tale is built on a questionable and uncomfortable example of human suffering. This tradition of reimagining the past has been part of cinematic releases over the years, but should be considered by audiences. Go to see The Woman King purely for the entertainment value, not as a history lesson.
How can such evil exist?
Slavery, murder, rape… In amongst the drama and action, these acts against humanity and more are addressed in The Woman King. Yet, the question that comes to mind is, ‘How can this evil happen in our world?’ A question that has been around since the beginning of time.
Fortunately, the Bible gives an answer to the question and a solution, too. The problem can be found in Genesis 3, and the answer comes in the middle of the Bible in the four biographies of Jesus. If this is a question you have, today might be a good day to grab a Bible and find the answers.
Where do you go in the Bible? Genesis (First book of the Bible) and Luke (About mid-way through the Bible).
All images: Movie publicity
About the author: Russ Matthews is a film critic at City Bible Forum and Reel Dialogue. He has a passion for film and sparking spiritual conversations.