Film & Television

Viola Davis Rules The Woman King

At last count, seven states have banned critical race theory, and there is legislation pending in 16 more. Although many of its most vocal detractors can’t tell you exactly what it is, the concept has become a politicized boogeyman, traumatizing our children, and threatening the American way of life. Anyone mentioning the country’s history of racism is accused of “playing the race card.” After all, doesn’t “forced migration” sound better than “slavery?”

The movie industry, which historically has not exactly been a monument to diversity, equity, and inclusion, likes to act “woke” — when there’s money to be made. Everyone in Hollywood became an honorary citizen of Wakanda when Black Panther earned $700 million at the box office domestically and another $647 million internationally. Most projects — especially those by women, Black, Asian, Hispanic, or other marginalized filmmakers — can’t promise that kind of return.

It took more than half a decade for The Woman King to reach the screen.

In 2015, actor and producer Maria Bello visited the Republic of Benin in West Africa and learned about the Agojie, extraordinary female warriors who protected the kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th centuries. She enlisted the help of Oscar-winning producer Cathy Schulman (Crash), director Gina Prince-Blythewood (Love & Basketball), and actor, producer, and Oscar-winner Viola Davis (more credits than we have room for, including Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and How to Get Away with Murder). Even with such a distinguished team, bringing the story of the Agojie to the screen was an uphill battle.

Davis spoke with The Hollywood Reporter and explained, “The part of the movie that we love is also the part of the movie that is terrifying to Hollywood, which is, it’s different, it’s new. We don’t always want different or new, unless you have a big star attached, a big male star. We didn’t have that going on for The Woman King. [Movie studios] like it when women are pretty and blond or close to pretty and blond. All of these women are dark. And they’re beating the shit out of men. So, there you go.”

Although The Woman King was eventually greenlighted, expectations may have been modest. The film’s $50 million budget paled in comparison to the typical (white) superhero epic. The average cost of an Avengers installment is about $350 million, and even Wonder Woman 1984, which ended up with disappointing reviews and earnings, was budgeted at $200 million.

Now in its second week, The Woman King topped opening weekend ticket sales, earning nearly three times the receipts of the film in the number two spot. And reviews — including this one — have been uniformly positive.

 The Woman King artfully and seamlessly blends some familiar movie genres with a fresh female perspective. Following in the tradition of big-screen sagas like Gladiator, Braveheart, and Last of the Mohicans (all of which Prince-Blythewood has mentioned as inspirational), multiple combat scenes accelerate toward a final battle-to-the-death. In today’s world of CGI special effects, it’s particularly noteworthy — and impressive — that there were no special effects and virtually all of the stunts were performed by the actors themselves.

In the film, the Agojie are fighters first and foremost. In real life, they were admired — and feared — by both Africans and Europeans. Senior officer of Britain’s Life Guards Captain Duncan, upon witnessing the Agojie in battle, confessed, “On a campaign I should prefer the women of that country as soldiers to the men. After all I have seen in Africa, it appears to me that the King of Dahomey possesses an army superior to any other west of the Great Sahara.” However, Prince-Blythewood wanted to explore other aspects of their lives. “We didn’t want to show them as just one thing — badass women who killed. They also laughed and loved and cried. We wanted to show their full humanity, not just the cool part that would look good in a trailer.”

Interwoven between scenes of Agojie training, testing, and warfare, The Woman King offers a moving coming-of-age story. Young Nawi (the talented Thuso Mbedu, The Underground Railroad) defies her adopted parents by refusing to marry an older and brutal, but rich, husband and is deposited at the palace, a gift for the king. Her rebellious ways run counter to the Agojie’s culture of obedience, but help transform her into a most fearsome soldier.

While Nawi is fulfilling her destiny, General Nanisca (Davis) is coming to terms with trauma she experienced years ago as well as a heartbreaking decision she made. Her quest for revenge and redemption is all-consuming, eventually overriding her duty to Dahomey’s progressive young King Ghezo (John Boyega). Davis, who never disappoints, is, of course, absolutely tremendous in the role. Quite simply, and appropriate here, she rules. The acting throughout — not just from Davis, but from the entire cast — is a powerful combination of purpose and passion. And, incredible endurance.

Two other themes add texture and richness to The Woman King. The first is sorority (having passed a brutal test of initiation, the Agojie take a blood oath of sisterhood and celibacy); one of the most engaging relationships is between Nanisca and her right-hand (wo)man and spiritual advisor Amenza (the electrifying Sheila Atim). The second is an anti-slavery message (Dahomey’s arch enemies, the Oyo, sell captives to European traders, while Nanisca persuades Ghezo to stop doing so and protect all Africans from the white men). There’s a chilling scene on an auction block toward the end of the movie, when an Agojie lieutenant (the riveting Lashana Lynch) defiantly faces off with the captain of a slave ship, despite shackles, a broken arm, his deliberate molestations, and her near hopeless situation.

As many have pointed out, much of Dahomey’s wealth came from the slave trade. So, it’s a bit deceptive to make the Agojie a troop of abolitionists. But, The Woman King doesn’t pretend to be a documentary. The names Nanisca and Nawi can be traced back to real members of the Agojie, but the movie’s plot was created to work onscreen, which it does brilliantly. “We entered the story where the kingdom was in flux, at a crossroads,” Davis insists. “Most of the story is fictionalized. It has to be.”

Nevertheless, there have been calls to boycott The Woman King. Some because of the way the film glosses over Ghezo’s (and the Agojie’s) continued participation in the slave trade. Others, no doubt, because the spectacle of an army of heroic Black women mobilizing and “beating the shit” out of both Black and white men is too disturbing.

At any rate, it might be wise to suggest that the people who don’t want race, racism, or even slavery taught in schools not see The Woman King.

The again, maybe they should.

The Woman King is currently playing in movie theatres.

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