Actionable History (Movie Review: The Woman King)
As recently as 2019,* an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal trotted out that hoary old chestnut about women in the military. You’ve heard this before, the idea that women aren’t as strong as men, are injured far more often, and that by reducing the physical standards of recruits, the lethality of the military will be reduced and the odds of invasion by our hated enemy, Canada, will only increase. Plus there’s the concern that a coed military means a sexually active military, and we certainly can’t have that!**
The fact that this lame old argument keeps being made says to me that the people doing the arguing a) have no imagination and b) have no sense of history. Think women aren’t good with guns? May I introduce you to Lyudmila Pavlichenko, also known as Lady Death? She was a Soviet sniper during World War II and sent 309 Germans to meet their maker. Think women can’t pack on muscle? Let’s say hello to two-time Olympian Sarah Robles who, at one point in her weightlifting career, lifted 340 pounds. I could go on.
But what about the most important aspect of the military, I hear frightened chauvinists asking. Do women have what it takes, a killer instinct? Boudica of Britain slaughtered the Romans. Irish pirate Grace O’Malley won a decisive battle an hour after giving birth. To her fourth child. Nakano Takeko, one of the Onna-Bugeisha, or female samurai, slew five men armed with rifles using a pole weapon. The point is, if you need women to kill the bejeezus out of someone, with the proper training, equipment, and support, they’ll do it.
So with all of these historical stories ripe for adaptation, why don’t we have more movies about women annihilating their way through history? Ordinarily, I’d rant about cowardly executives and apathetic viewers. But things are changing, and stories that wouldn’t have been told years ago are being told now. Does the epic The Woman King signal a new trend in female-led historical action movies? I hope so.
In the year 1823, the African kingdom of Dahomey is busy enough trying to repel territorial incursions from the larger and stronger Oyo Empire. Add to that the machinations of the European powers and the slave trade, and Dahomey is just barely hanging on. Their King is Ghezo (John Boyega), and he shrewdly manages the competing pressures with diplomacy, guile, and his ace in the hole.
That would be the Agojie, an all-female group of warriors.*** An area of the royal palace is dedicated to them, a place where no man may tread. Years of training have sharpened their skills, yet it’s their general Nanisca (Viola Davis) who elevates them. She’s a brilliant tactician, a terrifying fighter, and an inspiration to the kingdom.
Nanisca also has the ear of Ghezo, and she’s painfully aware that, just like the Oyo Empire, Dahomey is complicit in the slave trade. She believes there’s a way out, and if the kingdom can step up its production of palm oil, it can withdraw from human trafficking and become wealthy. Easier said than done when they’re being squeezed between racist colonizers and rival nations.
Complicating matters is the arrival of the young woman Nawi (Thuso Mbedu). Her adopted father boots her out of the family and “gives” her to the king, probably because she beats the hell out of an abusive potential husband. Nawi is headstrong and contrary. Without the firm and guiding hand of Lieutenant Izogie (Lashana Lynch), Nawi would probably flame out. She’ll need to find her place with the Agojie and reach some kind of accommodation with Nanisca. They’ll all have to work together to prevent the destruction of their home.
Make no mistake, The Woman King is a big, broad action epic that’s designed to be a crowd-pleaser. That’s a good thing. The better thing is that director Gina Prince-Bythewood isn’t one of those filmmakers dependent upon CGI and green screens. She studied films such as The Last of the Mohicans and Gladiator. Her actors trained extensively in martial arts and extensive fitness. She led her cast and crew to South Africa for a shoot lasting five months. All of that preparation gives the film a tactility and realism that digital effects simply can’t match. Prince-Bythewood’s action sequences are clean, kinetic, and extremely cool.
Can a kickass action movie have something to say, though? Yup. Screenwriter Dana Stevens, along with Prince-Bythewood and producer Maria Bello, did their research to ensure this true story was historically accurate and free of misinformation. More important is the screenplay’s strong commitment to believable characterization and emotion. As cool as it is to watch the Agojie demolish their enemies, we always understand what the stakes are for the individual characters, what their goals and fears are, and how they feel about everything. By doing that heavy lifting, the script makes every skirmish matter and gives every battle real stakes beyond victory or defeat. Now, does that mean that the script is entirely free of tropes such as “the hotheaded new recruit learns duty” and “a romance that can’t possibly work begins to bloom?” Oh, no. There are aspects of this story you’ve seen before. That’s fine because if you have a script with clearly drawn characters and understandable goals, audiences will accept and even embrace the old tropes.
The cast attacks their roles with honesty and ferocity. The two pivotal roles in the film are Viola Davis as Nanisca and Thuso Mbedu as Nawi. Davis is one of those performers who brings a natural authority to every role. It’s no different here, and Davis sells that as effectively as she expresses trauma and vulnerability. The role of Nawi feels a little Mulan adjacent, and Thoso Mbedu isn’t playing a character that’s quite as fully realized as Davis is. She still holds her own as the character who introduces us to this rich and layered world, and Mbedu believably plays a woman who experiences a seismic shift in her outlook. As strong as those performances are, I think the film is stolen by Lashana Lynch as Izogie. She’s a force of nature with a puckish sense of humor, the physicality to handle the action sequences, and the emotional range to make it matter. With luck, a smart producer is developing an action franchise to build around Lynch.
I have known men who have served. Some of them were a credit to their families and country. Others had no business running a petting zoo, much less a rifle battalion. Those particular men are the ones sneering at the idea of women in combat. I would welcome the chance to watch those men express that opinion to the cast and crew of The Woman King. Then I’d love to visit those men later, in the ER.
*Though I’m sure there have been more recent opinion pieces. We do love the greatest hits, don’t we, folks?
**If only we had an all-male military, things like sexual assault wouldn’t happen, right? Um…no.
***The Dora Milaje in Black Panther was based on the Agojie.