Review: The Woman King
Despite its historical inaccuracies, Shagnick Bhattacharya has a good time with this historical action drama, led by an excellent Viola Davis
I went to see The Woman King last Monday, in an almost empty theatre (a blissful experience in itself for introverts like me) in Exeter Picturehouse. To summarise the entirety of what I’m going to say for the movie, it was quite a good experience as far as the primary objective of cinema is concerned, i.e., entertainment. However, there were some underwhelming aspects, which have generated a lot of controversy among audiences in the past few weeks, especially with regard to how the movie is being promoted on the basis of falsified and/or exaggerated historicity.
The film, set in the 1820s West Africa, presents the story of the Agojie, a unit of elite fighters uniquely composed only of women, from the kingdom of Dahomey ruled at the time by the king Ghezo, and how they defeated their oppressive overlord – the Oyo empire – and evil slave traders. With a number of interesting sub-plots as well which make the story really compelling, the protagonists are shown as having a strong stance against the institution of slavery (with an evil white slave trader being one of the two main antagonists), as well as being firm believers in women standing up for themselves against the oppressive male establishment (signified mainly by the Oyo empire, particularly through the character Oba). And when the film’s trailer claims the film to be “based on powerful true events” it’s referring to the historicity of the Agojie, and to the fact that the Dahomey did defeat the Oyo empire at the time when the story is supposed to take place.
To start with the great aspects of the movie, I’d say that the entire cast of the film –especially Viola Davis as Nanisca – give absolutely brilliant performances in their respective roles. The story, although maybe unnecessarily overdramatic in certain places, undoubtedly delivers. And the brilliant action sequences which constantly keep you on the edge of your seat, anticipating how fights are going to turn out, can’t be forgotten either. But what I personally loved the most about the movie was its first-hand depiction of African culture, from indigenous ornaments, architecture and weapons to scenes depicting ceremonies and festivals in progress. The film also doesn’t miss the mark in terms of the brutality, trauma and societal evils that the slave trade brought upon its innocent victims as well as groups participating in that trade.
First-hand depiction of African culture, from indigenous ornaments, architecture and weapons to scenes depicting ceremonies and festivals in progress.
And now, the problematic aspects of the movie. Unfortunately, what the film essentially does is whitewash the Dahomey and the Agojie of any involvement in the slave trade, whereas in real life the nation was an active participant in the transatlantic slave trade by conquering other African states and enslaving their citizens to sell, and most of the kingdom’s wealth was derived from slavery which actually increased after the Oyo empire was defeated. And the Agojie were one of the prime facilitators through which the Dahomey acquired slaves. Indeed, as pointed out by Alaa Al-Ameri, an authour for the news website Spiked, the film “caters to the white, progressive demand for one-dimensional black caricatures of victimhood.” Additionally, the most inspiring and powerful character from the film, Nanisca, in the particular context of the film’s setting, is a fictional character. The Agojie, unique as they were as a military regiment, were sadly not only used as an instrument for acquiring slaves, but also were the victims of patriarchal oppression in various forms – even though they could lead a life of wealth and influence, the society still controlled their bodies and personal freedom through practices like genital mutilations and compulsory maintenance of virginity. They were essentially societal outcasts, with their world being confined to the palace (as shown in the film) as they were legally married to the king.
Overall, though, I would definitely recommend the reader to watch the film. For me, watching the film on the big screen and then later thinking about it certainly turned out to be a great experience.