Set in the 19th century and inspired by true events, the newly released feature film “The Woman King” tells the story of the West African kingdom of Dahomey, the horrific effects of the transatlantic slave trade and the Agojie, the group of fearless women who protect the kingdom. Some people have been criticizing the film for not telling the full extent to which the Dahomey kingdom participated in the slave trade and profited from it. While that may be a fair assessment, it should not hinder the fact that under the direction of Gina Prince-Bythewood, we’ve still got a powerful film about sisterhood, family and unity that’s entertaining and educational.
With the film’s release, a wider variety of people are probably Googling words like “Dahomey” and “Agojie” now than in previous years, hungry for facts and context. And that should be celebrated. At its core, the story is about a group of people fighting against their extinction. To see the story of Black women being a central part of that battle for survival should also be celebrated.
At its core, the story is about a group of people fighting against their extinction. To see the story of Black women being a central part of that battle for survival should also be celebrated.
What should also not be lost is how a film like this gives space to showcase the talent of women, particularly Black ones, in front of and behind the camera. In Hollywood, that doesn’t happen often. “The Woman King” coming to theaters days after four Black women won top awards at the 2022 Emmys on Monday night represents what can happen when they are given the opportunity to bring stories to the world.
For over 20 years, Prince-Bythewood has given entertainment to the film world, from 2000’s “Love and Basketball” to her 2020 Netflix movie “The Old Guard,” an action fantasy. One can say this last film, which reportedly reached nearly 80 million subscribers on the streaming service in its first four weeks, was her calling card for directing “The Woman King.” Hopefully, this will lead to her getting other action-packed projects to direct.
She’s more than proven herself. Rather than shooting in California or Atlanta, where a majority of studio films are shot, production took place in South Africa, specifically KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Cape Town. It was important for Prince-Bythewood that the film looked authentic. Bringing forth that authenticity also rested on the very capable shoulders of editor Terilyn A. Shropshire, costume designer Gersha Phillips, makeup and prosthetics designer Babalwa Mtshiselwa and hairstylist Louisa Anthony. They were part of Prince-Bythewood’s core production team.
In one scene, Agojie fighter Izogie (Lashana Lynch) is seen braiding the hair of new, young recruit Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) and lets her know that her hair needs to be this way when in battle. Anthony told HelloBeautiful that she “wanted to show the love, the history, the legacy, and the future of black women. Our future stories are intertwined in those lines and in those braids. It’s about women’s power, beauty, and how we can draw from the past and how it has a meaningful foundation for us now in the future.”
The thread of sisterhood woven throughout “The Woman King” will leave a lasting impression. Academy Award winner Viola Davis is stunning as General Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie. She is multidimensional, tasked with protecting the young king of Dahomey (John Boyega) and training the next set of warriors. Lynch, Mbedu, Sheila Atim, recent Tony Award winner Adrienne Warren and Jayme Lawson perfectly round out the core ensemble cast.
When it comes to the fight scenes, we can thank Davis’ stunt double, Jénel Stevens, who, along with Daniel Hernandez, was also tasked with being a fight choreographer for the film. While I was at the Toronto International Film Festival, Prince-Bythewood thanked Stevens for getting her girls in shape. From “The Last of the Mohicans” to “Braveheart” and countless other war films, we’re used to seeing the strength of men in battle but, following in the footsteps of “Black Panther,” “The Woman King” highlights how women can fight just as tough as men.
And to think we may have almost not gotten to see all of this wonderfulness. From when producer and actress Maria Bello first pitched the story to producer Cathy Schulman in 2015 after traveling back from Benin in West Africa to now, there were some hiccups along the way. But the finished product is a must-see.
There’s going to be a lot written about what’s false about “The Woman King,” but the best way to enjoy the film is to focus on what’s true: The Agojies were powerful women warriors, their story deserves to be told, Prince-Bythewood and her crew did a phenomenal job doing that, and Black women in Hollywood are getting much-deserved praise.
CORRECTION (Sept. 23, 2022, 10:36 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Jénel Stevens’ work on the film. She was Viola Davis’ stunt double, but not her trainer.