Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.
So I’m never shy about my opinions regarding the Oscars, especially when it comes to the inherent racism and sexism involved in them. I’ve done a deeper dive on that, something I hope to use someday, but movies like The Woman King are a demonstration of just how big that problem really is. Sure, this is my opinion and it would be easy to rationalize a different opinion, just as it would be easy to say what I think is a rationalization of a short. However, it’s my firm conviction that if The Woman King had been the story of a group of white women (like, say, Women Talking), I would be including this on one or more of my various Oscar lists. But, it’s about African women, and here we are.
This isn’t to denigrate Women Talking, which I have not seen. It’s to suggest that just as the Oscars tend to be more favorable to movies about men, they’re more favorable to movies about white people. Before you start hitting me with examples, know that I don’t really want to hear them. Sure, Moonlight exists as a Best Picture winner. So does Green Book, and the white guy was nominated for Best Actor in that one.
This is the story of the Agojie, a group of warrior women in West Africa who fought for the kingdom of Dahomey, which is now a part of Benin. There’s going to be some immediate connection to the myth of the Amazons, and for a modern audience, the immediate connection is the Dora Milaje from the Black Panther movies. The film takes place in 1823, so we’re in the heart of slavery years, and this is the part of Africa where the vast majority of slaves came from. We open with the Agojie freeing a group of Dahomean women who were abducted by slavers of the Oyo Empire, which was just to the east of Dahomey. Leading this is Nanisca (Viola Davis), the general of the Agojie, and essentially second in command to the Dahomean king Ghezo (John Boyega).
The stealing of their people causes Ghezo to consider a full war against the Oyo Empire. Meanwhile, the Agojie continue to recruit new warriors including some of the freed prisoners from peoples. Among the new recruits is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who has been sent to the Agojie by her adopted parents because she refuses to submit to a husband.
Nawi befriends Izogie (Lashana Lynch), one of the trainers of the new Agojie recruits and one of Nanisca’s most valuable lieutenants. We get to watch some of Nawi’s training and we learn that her dominant characteristic is that she doesn’t really listen to anyone else—much the same reason why she was sent to the Agojie in the first place. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a pair of Portuguese slavers named Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) and Malik (Jordan Bolger). There’s a relationship between them and Ghezo despite them being slavers and Dahomey moving away from slavery in any form. Additionally, we learn that Malik’s mother was Dahomean, which almost certainly means she was a captured slave.
The other important plot point here is the presence of Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), the general of the Oyo Empire. We learn eventually that he once held Nanisca in captivity and abused her, and that eventually Nanisca escaped, but gave birth to a daughter. I’ll leave your familiarity with narrative to get you to the obvious conclusion here. We learn much of this through Nanisca’s relationship with another of her lieutenants, Amenza (Sheila Atim), who performs some various divination to see what the future might hold.
Bluntly, the four women I have mentioned here, Davis, Mbedu, Lynch, and Atim, deserved some attention for their performances, the first two as Best Actress and the second two (especially Lashana Lynch) in supporting roles. It’s also a good reminder that Oscar has gone far too long without having a category for stunt work. Even if the rest of the movie weren’t entertaining, the battle sequences are more than worth the price of admission.
The biggest issue I have with The Woman King is that the story is a lot more straightforward and (to coin a phrase) trope-y than I would really like. There are a lot of places here where I was able to predict what was going to happen long before it did. I get that that’s more or less the case with anything that is following a very standard narrative, but I also like to be surprised, and there wasn’t a lot here that surprised me. What happens to the various characters and how the plot turns out is easy to read if you know even a little bit about narrative.
It's okay, though. I’m not suggesting that The Woman King should have been nominated for its screenplay. It’s the performances that make this what it is, along with the truly wonderful fight choreography.
Why to watch The Woman King: It’s badass.
Why not to watch: The plot is a lot more standard than you’d like.