The Woman King isn’t the simple tale of good and evil it appears to be. The film does pit the Agojie, a fierce all-female army from the historical West African kingdom of Dahomey (and inspiration for Black Panther’s Dora Milaje), against the moral rot of chattel slavery. The Dahomey aren’t pure victims, though. They also participate in the slave trade — not as extensively as the neighboring Oyo Empire, which has been terrorizing Dahomey settlements and selling their people to Portuguese slavers for decades. But the Dahomey do capture enemies and sell them as slaves. Some within the kingdom oppose the practice on moral grounds. Others are simply looking to get rich and don’t care how they do it.
This ambiguity makes The Woman King less of a nationalist exercise than S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, and so many other films that turn real historical events, with all their messy contradictions and pesky nuances, into straightforward David-and-Goliath stories. To be clear, this is still a Hollywood version of history, with all the rousing action, inspirational uplift, and soaring soundtrack choices that label implies. But director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard, Beyond the Lights) and screenwriter Dana Stevens do complicate the issue, mostly for the better.
Viola Davis stars as Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie, who carries the weight of the kingdom on her muscular shoulders, alongside some pretty nasty scars. As the film opens, the Agojie are considering how to strike back against their Oyo oppressors. And they’ve recently suffered losses in raids against the Oyo designed to free Dahomey captives headed to a port auction block. As a result, they’re looking for new recruits.
This is good news for Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a rebellious teenage girl from the capital city. When Nawi’s father drops her off at the palace gates, telling the guard that he’s offering his daughter as a gift to the king, he thinks he’s punishing her for refusing to accept an arranged marriage to a rich man who introduces himself by hitting her. It turns out that her father is actually saving her. Nawi’s fiery nature and stubborn determination make her a much better fit for the Agojie than for sexual servitude and a life of forced farm labor.
The first half of the film focuses on Nawi’s initiation into the Agojie, following her and her fellow recruits through the boot camp-like training designed to transform them from undisciplined girls into polished warriors. The instruction only partially works on Nawi, who remains defiant even when it isn’t in her best interests. Her superiors, including Nanisca’s second-in-command, Amenza (Sheila Atim, recently seen as a doomed warrior in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness), and their fierce lieutenant, Izogie (Lashana Lynch, the Captain Marvel movies’ Maria Rambeau), discipline her when they need to. At the same time, they seem amused by this impassioned new recruit.
Because rebellion can’t be tolerated in the well-organized Agojie, but spirit and passion are encouraged and respected. The rules surrounding the army are many, including a royal edict that no ordinary citizen can look an Agojie in the eye. But sisterhood and pride are as important to them as custom and protocol. And behind castle walls, even Nanisca is gentler than Nawi expects, given her tired eyes and grave expression.
John Boyega co-stars as Dahomey sovereign King Ghezo, and the film does dive briefly into politics and castle intrigue as Nanisca and the king’s favorite wife compete for influence over Ghezo. This rivalry is less compelling than the camaraderie between the Agojie, which grows richer as the characters’ traumatic backstories and epic destinies are revealed. In the cloistered, all-female world of the palace, bonds between women blossom and thrive. And Prince-Bythewood infuses these relationships with a warmth that’s even more inspiring than scenes of powerful Black women charging into battle.
By comparison, a halting romance between Nawi and a half-Dahomey, half-Portuguese explorer named Malik (Jordan Bolger) feels perfunctory. This is one movie where romance takes a back seat to comradeship — as refreshing a change of pace as giving African history and heroism the epic action-movie treatment.
Prince-Bythewood films the set-pieces with an eye for kinetic action, with fight choreography that’s split equally between MMA-style grappling and the swinging of heavy, curved machetes. But the real star of these scenes is the sound design, which adds heavy, crushing impact to the otherwise bloodless violence. (The film is rated PG-13, which limits the amount of blood that can be spilled on screen — a necessary sacrifice, perhaps, given the film’s populist scope.) Gunpowder and horses play secondary roles in the battle sequences, fitting for a film whose focus is on its people.
The Woman King is a more human type of blockbuster than most of what turns up on screen in the summer months. It’s burdened with many of the issues that typify big studio movies — overstretched CGI, an overstuffed plot — but it shrugs off those issues as easily as the Agojie flip enemy soldiers over their backs and into the dirt. This film has a fire in its belly. But more importantly, it also has a heart full of love: love of life, love of freedom, love of Black people and culture, and love for its ferocious, complicated, brave women.
The Woman King opens in theaters on Sept. 16.