The Woman King (2022)
September 16, 2022 10:25 PM - Subscribe

The story of the Agojie, the all-female unit of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s with skills and a fierceness unlike anything the world has ever seen, and General Nanisca (Viola Davis) as she trains the next generation of recruits and readies them for battle against an enemy determined to destroy their way of life.

If I'm being honest, this film is a lightly corny historical melodrama in its bones. However, one rarely sees in a traditional big-budget historical melodrama such people in such a place given such handsome and respectful treatment, especially with darker-skinned actresses like Davis (and Lashana Lynch, bringing excellent swagger as usual). So if your reaction to the trailer was "the plot looks a little creaky, but seems like it could be pleasurable to watch for all the women," you should go.
posted by praemunire (15 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Touches that I especially enjoyed:

(a) The establishing shots make it clear that we're dealing with a complex and wealthy civilization on its own terms. I have no idea whether the culture depicted is authentic to 19th-century Dahomey, but it looks convincing and good.

(b) The movie does what every film of this kind should do, which is have the West Africans speak (accented) English and the Europeans, when they're speaking their own languages, be subtitled.

(c) The textiles look great. Davis's ceremonial purple outfit at the end was fabulous.
posted by praemunire at 10:34 PM on September 16, 2022 [4 favorites]

Totally agree: my wife suggested we watch this and I was like, ugh, no.. looks like ahistorical pap... and it is! But then we watched it and I totally enjoyed. It is a Movie movie, if that makes sense, and works great on its own terms. Loved Lynch and also supporting actor Sheila Atim, both very charismatic, and of course Davis who is very compelling as the super stoic action hero.

One aspect I appreciated was there was not coded lesbianism in this movie. Often capital F Feminist films pander to queer audiences yet shy away from making those characterizations overt, which I super resent. The women warriors here have basically chosen an asexual lifestyle which was fairly believable at face value. (There is a queer coded eunuch character). One complaint is the trope of the rape back story.. although fortunately they didn't linger too much on it.

Lots of people being macheted, as a heads up.
posted by latkes at 8:49 AM on September 18, 2022 [4 favorites]

I didn't see this post, so wrote up a quick review intending to make a post about the movie. Anyway, a post has clearly been made, so here's my review.

The Woman King tells an imagined story based on the real life African Kingdom of Dahomey, which existed from the 1600s to early 1900s, and their female military guard, the Agojie. Viola Davis stars as Nanisca, an Agojie general, as she trains a new round of recruits and attempts to influence King Ghezo (John Boyega). The kingdom of Dahomey is rich and powerful, but much of that wealth comes from selling slaves to Europeans. Nanisca sees this as a problem and wants the kingdom to change its ways and focus on selling agriculture. The King isn’t so sure, but is somewhat open to ideas.

However, the Oyo empire, personified by the ruthless male general Oda (Jimmy Odukoya), is set on subjugating Dahomey and its people to the greater empire. Meanwhile, European slavers have arrived for their annual collecting and are more than happy to work with Oda and the Oyo empire to ensure a regular supply of enslaved people.

So we follow Naniisca and her trusted advisors as they begin training a new group of recruits, one of whom is Nawi, a young girl determined to show her strength. Even if it means not exactly obeying Nanisca’s orders, which brings a fierce tension between the two.

The film is beautifully shot and Viola Davis and the cast put on strong performances. The script is a bit pedestrian, as there’s never any doubt as to where it’s going or what will happen. An actress less capable and experienced as Davis would have revealed these weaknesses, but Davis shines with a stoic toughness tinged with hidden vulnerability that strengthens the full range of her character.

History wise, a lot is glossed over in terms of slavery and how much African tribes are were responsible for in the west. No matter, this isn't a documentary, but an exciting work of fiction whose goal is to remind us of a complicated past while delivering a grand film that seeks to rise about that past. It works in the end, despite a few stumbles, because of fantastic performances of the mostly female cast and they life they bring to the character’s relationships.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:04 AM on September 18, 2022 [6 favorites]

Lots of people being macheted, as a heads up.

For people who are concerned, this is accurate (lots and lots), but there's very little gore. I think the PG-13 rating is accurate. I wouldn't take a ten-year-old to this movie, but a kid of 14 or 15 who wasn't very sensitive could probably handle it.

One aspect I appreciated was there was not coded lesbianism in this movie.

I came away thinking that there probably should have been open (but not graphic, of course, given the rating) lesbianism. I doubt all those young women were asexual! And, as we saw, joining the king's guard would have been an alternative to being forced into a heterosexual marriage. But perhaps there wasn't room in the film to handle it in a way that was brief but avoided the accidental evocation of negative tropes.
posted by praemunire at 10:35 AM on September 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

We liked it a lot. It's a totally cliched plot, basically the same one as Top Gun: Maverick but it's beautifully made and Davis is amazing.
posted by octothorpe at 4:44 PM on September 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Oh, I wasn't the only one to think Top Gun:
If The Woman King becomes a big box-office hit, it may be worth noting how many similarities this storyline shares with the plot of 2022’s biggest blockbuster, Top Gun: Maverick, another movie about an seasoned warrior who becomes the teacher to a younger generation of soldiers, including an arrogant but brave fighter who the protagonist adopts as a kind of surrogate child.
posted by octothorpe at 4:20 AM on September 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

It is estimated that the Kingdom of Dahomey supplied 20% of all slaves while the trade was active.

I've tried to write this comment a bunch of times but really all I wanted to share is the above. I really wish filmmakers would consult real historians, not just the war is exciting ones.
posted by M Edward at 9:55 PM on September 19, 2022

The kingdom's involvement in slave trade was one of the major plot points of the movie.
posted by octothorpe at 5:19 AM on September 20, 2022 [2 favorites]

Somewhat related: apparently the film got grief online for the Generian African accents. This is very much a work of fiction in the tradition of many 'historical' dramas set in extremely unrealitic versions of historical Europe.
posted by latkes at 9:10 AM on September 20, 2022

I think historians can and indeed should point out that the historical king, Ghezo, actually continued to participate in the slave trade.

But to argue that it's somehow beyond the pale, in a work of historical fiction that doesn't pretend to be otherwise, to imagine (Nanisca not being a historical figure herself) one influential opponent of the trade at his court strikes me as absurd. There were influential opponents of the slave trade in the Western countries who participated in it at the time. Why is it so hard to accept the idea that one Dahomey leader might take the same position? The Abojie as a group are not depicted as some kind of generic anti-slave trade crusaders; indeed, all their military actions are either rescuing/avenging their own or defending the kingdom from external attack (and at least once they are explicitly shown as taking slaves for the trade). There is some line at which variation from the historical facts would be truly inappropriate, but this movie is nowhere near it. And if we're crafting a standard, let's make sure it's a standard we apply to all historical fiction relating to all Western enslaver countries' armies at this time.
posted by praemunire at 11:06 AM on September 20, 2022 [2 favorites]

We saw it this week and loved it. If you enjoyed the character of Esi (the Bo staff master) played by Shaina West, I highly recommend giving her Instagram account a follow:

She routinely posts videos of her training with swords, the Bo staff, knives, kickboxing, etc.

It's an exciting time to see so many young women becoming real action stars in films like this, not just the standard 1-2 per generation I grew up with. I've always been in awe of what stunt performers can do, and this movie gives a handful of them the screen time they all so richly deserve.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 12:58 PM on September 23, 2022 [2 favorites]

The action scenes were great and I really wish they hadn't gone with the whole slaver storyline and the Nanisca's trauma storyline and given us a whole movie of training, bonding, fighting battles.
posted by kokaku at 7:12 PM on October 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

Dope fight scenes. Super fun generational drama.

Why does this movie have to carry the burden of educating Americans about history?

Is it because teaching Atlantic history is being banned in schools? Seems unfair to blame the movie for what the daughters of the Confederacy are doing.
posted by eustatic at 11:58 AM on October 2, 2022

Yeah, good movie but it could’ve used more battles and fight scenes.
posted by Apocryphon at 6:31 PM on October 15, 2022

thread from the History of Africa Podcast about the accuracy of the movie. Threadreader link.
posted by Apocryphon at 5:03 PM on December 20, 2022

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