“The Woman King,” an exhilarating saga set on the battlefields of nineteenth-century West Africa, opens with a scene of liberation. Dahomey, a scrappy kingdom menaced by the slave trade, has dispatched its bravest soldiers to rescue a group of captive subjects, who are at risk of being sold to the rival Oyo Empire. Led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), an all-female unit of Agojie, or Amazons, strike the enemy outpost in the dead of night, rising from the tall grass with blades drawn. They quickly cut their opponents to pieces; Nanisca, in a cowrie-studded breastplate, slits the throat of a man who denies taking slaves. Victorious, they return to Dahomey, where grateful crowds meet them at the city gates. Civilians are forbidden to look upon the warriors, who are officially the king’s wives. But, when a little boy peeks, the coolly swaggering Izogie (Lashana Lynch) rewards him with a smile. You’d better believe it, she seems to be saying—a message equally directed at the audience.
Much of the hype around “The Woman King,” which premières Friday, has focussed on the obstacles to making it. The actor Maria Bello, who wrote the story with Dana Stevens, pitched the idea to Davis seven years ago, easily persuading the Hollywood titan to produce, champion, and star in the project. But studios balked at funding a feminist action movie rooted in African history, especially with dark-skinned actors in the lead roles. Then, in 2018, the astronomical success of “Black Panther” shifted the calculus, especially once fans learned that Wakanda’s Dora Milaje warriors were directly inspired by the Agojie. Sony’s TriStar Pictures tapped Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball”) to direct the fifty-million-dollar feature, which she’s compared with “Braveheart.” For her and her collaborators, the battle isn’t just for Dahomey’s freedom but the future of equity in cinema. “If you don’t come to see it, then you’re sending a message that Black women can’t lead the box-office globally,” Davis said, last week.
It’s about time for a major film on a kingdom like Dahomey. The modern world was shaped not only on the beaches of Normandy but also those of the so-called slave coast, where sophisticated states—not “warring tribes”—relentlessly vied for supremacy. Nowadays, their stories rarely see the outside of a university lecture hall. But “The Woman King” transforms them into spectacular entertainment, conjuring a Dahomey of bustling trade, vibrant fashion, and sprawling earthwork palaces, where young women in striped tunics drill with flintlock muskets. Rarely does an American film devote such meticulous attention to the lived reality of a non-Western culture, though, like the Agojie, we rarely see life beyond court. Instead, the world comes to the palace. Ghezo (John Boyega), the young monarch—all ease and virility in a spectrum of open-chested robes—underscores the film’s corrective agenda when a slave trader tries to speak to him in Portuguese. “You will speak our language,” he interrupts. (The language is Fon, played here by Boyega’s British-Nigerian English.)
But there is something rotten in the state of Dahomey. Despite being surrounded by veteran soldiers, fawning wives, saucy eunuchs, and a cabinet of advisers that includes the five-time-Grammy-winning Beninese legend Angélique Kidjo, Ghezo has been forced to pay a humiliating tribute of guns and captives to the Oyo. The empire’s leader, Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), and his turbanned baddies have seized the kingdom’s port, Ouidah, and aligned themselves with malevolent Western slave traffickers. Ghezo, too, sells enemy prisoners, but only because he must, of course, with heavy-hearted Jeffersonian reluctance. Nanisca lobbies against the trade, especially once she begins having ominous nightmares about a buried sexual trauma. The stage is set for a moral showdown: Will Ghezo cave to cowardly pragmatism or embrace the abolitionist awakening of his Agojie?