October 14, 2022 | CULTURE | By Frances Thyer | Illustration by Elizabeth White
Historically excluded from traditional Blockbuster action films, the predominantly Black female cast, in The Woman King, have reclaimed what it means to be a warrior. For director Gina Prince-Bythewood, creating a film like The Woman King was a dream of hers since her career began. “The industry hadn’t caught up to me yet. The doors had been closed for a long time, certainly in the action space for women,” she said.
From violent battle scenes to elaborate dance sequences, The Woman King offers an engaging, nuanced, and thoughtful addition to the action film genre.
A historic epic focusing on an all-female group of warriors, The Woman King revolves around power and division and ultimately community—both the one you are born into and the ones you ultimately belong in. From the 17th century through the 19th century, historic warriors, or the Agojie, were responsible for protecting the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Unlike the men, the Agojie were not allowed to marry or have children, living in a women-only part of the kingdom.
Set in 1823, the film depicts a division among the kingdom and the controversy over capturing other Africans to be sold into the European slave trade. This dynamic is further complicated as the Dahomey are at war with another empire…and their prisoners are critical to the local warfare and trade with Europeans.
With few core male characters, the cast, led by Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu, are an ode to the Agojie’s history of power and sisterhood.
Director Prince-Bythewood’s breakthrough was as a writer-director of the successful Love and Basketball, released in 2000. Researching extensively for The Woman King, she hoped to create a historical epic as aligned with actual history as possible. Given that the Agojie did indeed beat many all-male enemies, she committed herself to learning about their training.
The warriors prepared 24/7, showing little pain; the first half of the film follows the training of a new group of Agojie soldiers, an impending threat to the enemy empire. Ultimately, the radical scale of their preparation may be the reason the film lingers on the subject a bit too long.
At moments, VFX does pull away from both the narrative and the cinematography. Despite going a bit over the top with production, the film does manage to ensure a thoughtful story; the action scenes, with all the actors doing their own fighting and stunts, seamlessly synthesize themes of strength and intense female camaraderie. Considering the on-screen connection, Prince-Bythewood recounts the training regime for the film creating an atmosphere of sisterhood off-screen as well.
Despite the spectacles in production and at times convoluted narrative, the certain aspects of The Woman King are done marvelously. The film takes on complex topics such as race and the patriarchy alongside intimate moments of love and family. Its discussion of femininity and community repeatedly proves remarkable.
“I’m hoping, foremost, you go and you’re entertained, and you have fun with the film,” said Prince-Bythewood. “But you get to see yourself reflected in a way you never have, and change your mindset.”
The Woman King is now playing in theaters.