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The Woman King – bringing empowering black histories to Hollywood

The Woman King – bringing empowering black histories to Hollywood
Still from 'The Woman King'. (First row L-R) Lashana Lynch, Viola Davis, Shelia Atim. (Second row L-R ) Sisipho Mbopa, Lone Motsomi, Chioma Umeala. All images: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Viola Davis gives a ferocious performance as a general of the Agojie, an all-female elite army that protected the kingdom of Dahomey. Despite a convoluted portrayal of the complexities of the African slave trade, the historical epic is an inspiring victory for representation in mainstream film.

The Woman King stars a ferocious war-weathered Viola Davis as a general who’s training the next generation of Agojie, a legendary all-female army. Among the new recruits is Nawi (South African actress Thuso Mbedu), a stubborn talented girl who was offered by her father to the king after refusing to be sold off to an abusive older man. Despite the bloodthirsty battles marketed in the trailer, the bulk of the film is about Nawi’s journey to become a warrior – an uplifting story of sisterhood and women’s strength in a context that has primarily been portrayed in film as a site of female oppression.

Viola Davis stars in 'The Woman King'. Image: Supplied

Viola Davis stars in ‘The Woman King’. Image: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu star in 'The Woman King'. Image: Supplied

Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu star in ‘The Woman King’. Image: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Nanisca (Viola Davis) in TriStar Pictures' 'The Woman King'. Image: Supplied

Nanisca (Viola Davis) in TriStar Pictures’ ‘The Woman King’. Image: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Davis is unsurprisingly superb, her vulnerability balanced with a powerful presence that dominates the screen in just the way you’d hope a seasoned general would. The emotional nuance to Nanisca’s relationship with the charmingly insubordinate Nawi is consistently captivating – a classic clash of hardcore master vs student, which is contrasted with Nawi’s friendship with the playful and quick-witted Izogie (Lashana Lynch), a veteran Agojie who acts as a role model/mentor. All three women offer wholehearted performances and are well cast.

The Woman King begins with a narrated prologue text:

“The African kingdom of Dahomey is at a crossroads … their enemy, the Oyo, has joined forces with the Mahi people to raid Dahomey villages and sell their people to European slavers, which has pulled both nations into a vicious circle. The powerful Oyo have new guns and horses, but the young king has his own lethal weapon – an elite force of female soldiers – the Agojie led by general Nanisca. Now these warriors are all that stand between the Oyo and Dahomey’s annihilation.”

In one reductively worded paragraph with a few omissions, director Gina Prince-Bythewood invokes freedom, gender roles and the nobility of the underdog on the side of the Dahomey, a western African kingdom whose three centuries of economic success was built on conquest and the slave trade.

Ties to slavery

Prince-Bythewood doesn’t outrightly ignore Dahomey’s ties to slavery, but spins the motivations of its fictionalised protagonists to place them, and by proxy, the whole of Dahomey, on the proggressive side of the conflict. Nanisca (Viola Davis) in particular, is endowed with a saintly egalitarianism that seems extremely unlikely of a Dahomean general – she actually spends the bulk of the film encouraging King Ghezo (John Boyega) to end his involvement in the slave trade, which he sees as just because he only sells his captives rather than his own people.

King Ghezo

“Slavery is a poison slowly killing us and the Europeans know this. They come to our land for their human cargo. Why do we sell our captives? For weapons? To capture more people to sell for more weapons?” This is just one of Nanisca’s eloquent indictments of slavery that she puts to her king, but her Braveheartesque speeches about “ripping off the shackles of slavery”, stirring as they may be, leave an uncomfortable unspoken taste of irony.

The reason for this sketchy representation of African history is to give licence to the audience to celebrate the Agojie, and there’s no mystery as to why – an elite army of warriors who are black, African, female and actually existed? It doesn’t get better than that!

Black-led action blockbusters

If you watch The Woman King in a movie theatre, you’ll most likely notice that the preceding trailers are for movies such as Wakanda Forever, the upcoming Black Panther movie, and Black Adam, in which Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays a DC superhero. Hollywood is taking advantage of the market for black-led action blockbusters that was stifled for decades by systematic racism. As the stories we’ve been taught about black histories are so rife with oppression, in order to portray black characters in positions of power without becoming overtly political, Hollywood tends towards fantasy and fictionalised histories.

But the Agojie were real; indeed they even inspired aspects of the various black female characters emerging in pop culture, such as the Dora Milaje who protect the Black Panther; so it’s a tricky business balancing their glory with their complicated history. Prince-Bythewood sided slightly with the former, creating awkward situations such as triumphant uplifting music playing in the background of gory scenes of mass slaughter.

Nanisca (Viola Davis) in TriStar Pictures' 'The Woman King'. Image: Supplied

Nanisca (Viola Davis) in TriStar Pictures’ ‘The Woman King’. All images (and below): Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Thuso Mbedu stars in 'The Woman King'. Image: Supplied

Thuso Mbedu stars in ‘The Woman King’.

(L to R) Thuso Mbedu, Viola Davis and Shelia Atim star in 'The Woman King'. Image: Supplied

(L to R) Thuso Mbedu, Viola Davis and Shelia Atim star in ‘The Woman King’.

Lashana Lynch and Thuso Mbedu star in 'The Woman King'. Image: Supplied

Lashana Lynch and Thuso Mbedu star in ‘The Woman King’.

Viola Davis and John Boyega star in 'The Woman King'. Image: Supplied

Viola Davis and John Boyega star in ‘The Woman King’.

Lashana Lynch stars in 'The Woman King'. Image: Supplied

Lashana Lynch stars in ‘The Woman King’.

The Agojie garb is exquisite, but highly romanticised; the combat choreography is excellent, the warriors are masters of everything from acrobatics to jujitsu, and able to deflect bullets with a machete. These historical inaccuracies are small potatoes compared to the film’s convoluted approach to slavery, and they reflect a sentiment expressed in the film by Malik, a half-Brazilian, half-Dahomey dreamboat who is the John Smith to Nawi’s Pocahontas:

“My mother was a slave – that is all I knew of African people, I never knew they could be kings and warriors.”

Despite the political complexities of the portrayal of Dahomey, and its lacklustre engagement with their role in the slave trade, The Woman King is an entertaining step in the right direction in terms of empowering representation of Africans, black people and women in mainstream film. DM/ML

The Woman Kingi s available in South African cinemas. You can contact We’re Watching via [email protected]

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