The Woman King: A review by Zinha

For two hours I sat amongst strangers in a cinema as we shouted, chanted, and cheered for our heroes while they fought for their lives and freedom on the silver screen. But nothing struck me more than the collective gasp of the audience during the opening scene in which we saw that yes, finally yes, this time our action heroes were Black women—this time, for the first time they were African women warriors: the Agojie. 

Woman King, directed by the trailblazing Gina Prince-Bythewood of Love and Basketball (2000), screened at Genesis Cinema this past weekend as the opener for Fragments Festival. I managed to sneak into the front row and felt my heart leap when suddenly Prince-Bythewood herself came into the theater to introduce the film. Here was a Black woman director who had been one of the first, if not the first, filmmakers who saw the power and heroics of putting athletic, badass Black women up on the big screen. So, it makes complete sense that Prince-Bythewood’s return to movies is this action packed, layered, and fierce omage to a fairly true history of the Agojie warriors who fought for the kingdom of Dahoomey (what is presently known as Benin). 

The film starts with an Adeline-pumping battle scene as the Agojie attack rival African warriors who have kidnapped civilians to enslave and sell to the Europeans. Watching this scene, my mouth dropped open, first with astonishment, and then with glee watching Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch, and Sheila Atim wield their machetes and spears (and lethal talon nails!) as easily as if they were second limbs. Much of Woman King’s promo spotlighted how intense and difficult the actors trained in order to accomplish the combat skills and martial arts needed to play their warrior selves. Their commitment shows and it is baddass to witness. But beyond witnessing a physical commitment to the history of these women’s prowess, I found myself impressed, at Prince-Bythewood’s ambition in unearthing and exploring the history of precolonial Africa (before the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century), and the economic and political context that the Agojie come from. 

When I grew up, as a young Black girl in Harlem, I was lucky to be surrounded by family members and have educators committed to telling me the stories of freedom fighters and various Black heros. But even as a child well versed in how African-American heroes like Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, then John Lewis, Assata Shakur, and the Black Panthers shaped my community legacy, there was a mist of the unknown as to who were our heroes, and our predecessors, before we had been captured and sold into the transatlantic slavetrade. It was only my father, who reminded me that there was an abundance of African Regents and that they were powerful and mighty sovereigns who had been feared, traded with, and respected by various European rulers. 

For most of my high school years, my dad, a historian, was working on his book, African Kings, Black Slaves (2018). So, it was through him that I began to understand the impossibility of a simplified history of the Slave Trade as it has been taught so often in schools (the ridiculous notion that Europeans arrive, Africans cower in fear and then ultimately betray one another into slavery). Instead, it’s the quite the opposite. African regions (located in the lands that we now know as Ghana, Benin, Togo, and much of Western Africa) were led by powerful sovereigns that were not only recognized, but also feared by the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English. But beyond this, these African Regents had politically complex collaborations, rivalries, and relationships with one another. African Sovereignty and its political implications were the key conditions that led to the expansion and structural foundations of the slave trade. And this was what felt most mind blowing about Woman King: that the film offers an entry point for audiences of all ages to be challenged in our complacency with simple Euro-centric history. By centralizing a cast of dark-skinned, politically powerful, and nuanced characters with various positionalities in an evolving African State, Prince-Bythewood, and her talented cast commit themselves wholeheartedly to releasing forth the song of an unsung history. 

But while watching the film, and surrendering myself to its adrenaline and energy, I also was left with so many questions about if and how the machinery of Hollywood Blockbusters and Americanized narratives constrained it. The movie centralizes itself around Viola Davis’ character Nanisca, the powerful and bold general who we come to see as a freedom fighter. Nanisca sees the wrongs of the slave trade as she struggles to recover from her own traumatic experience in captivity. Yet in reality, while Nanisca has been historically documented to exist, her unit of warriors only helped the regent of Dahoomey, King Ghezo (who is played by a delightful and hilarious John Boyega) expand his regional dominance through enslaving and trading Africans even after the British had abolished the slavetrade in its empire. Then crowding this main plot tension, there was the subplot of young Nawi, (played by Thuso Mbedu) coming of age as a young Agojie warrior struggling to give due respect to her superiors, an alarming (if not totally predictable) kinship connection to between Nanisca and Nawi, a sweet girlhood trio played out between Nawi and her two close warrior friends and that I wish had more screentime, and of course there had to be, what felt to me a little unnecessary, the mulatto don cassonova who seduces the stubborn Nawi while on his first journey to West Africa where he learns about the horrors that underly his African heritage. Please @ me for this if you disagree, but by the end of their love affair, I did question if we would have noticed if his plotline had been entirely cut from the film. 

With all these plots and subplots flying around, I found myself wanting more cinematic space to breathe and fall in love with these characters, the beauty of their kingdom and landscape (shot in South Africa) and the larger story they came together to tell. It felt like there was too much life, too much nuance, and at times, too much story to fit into one film. In particular, I felt at times that Prince-Bythewood wanted to empower us more than stay true to historical fact.  But I immediately recognized and loved the epicenes that this film opens gates to. It feels limitless as I sensed the abundance of stories that underlie this one.

As we watched the film, I could feel myself and the mostly Black audience members who sat in that theater lean forward to cheer on and root for the victory of the Agojie. It felt thrilling, exhilarating, almost sinful or perhaps like we couldn’t quite believe that we had Black women heroes to cheer onward with the certainty that they will win as action heroes should. Even after the success of Django Unchained and Black Panther, it still feels new as Hollywood has historically only presented sad and heartbreaking stories from this same era. Rallying around this cast of unlikely heroes, I was struck by how this moment felt like a first breath of air even though it told a true story. The true, if incomplete, story of a powerful African kingdom and its women warriors. I applaud Prince-Bythewood and Davis for pushing for this film to be told with the distribution of power as it historically was, they’ve pushed for a film that re-educates the mainstream public in more complex and holistic Black and African histories. As a Black American, I felt a familiar hurt arise because I am proof that not all these histories had the happy endings of this one. But at the same time these screened moments of Black politics, of Black power and royalty, Black fierceness, kinship, love, and stubborn spirit are true. True stories still to be filmed, still to re-emerge. 

We all want to make it.
Make it in our chosen career. Maybe make it big.

Sometimes perhaps just make it to pay day.
But whatever our ambition, what unites us all is the desire to thrive, be recognised – and be supported.
And that’s what Lambeth’s Creative Enterprise Zone is all about. Supporting creative people to do amazing creative things without having to leave our amazingly creative corner of south London.
Because we all want to make it – of course – but more than that, we want to Make It in Brixton.