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The Woman King


‘…goes all in as a popular entertainment, rolling back the male-dominance of the action genre and replacing it with something smart, dynamic and female driven…’

Can we just STFU about ‘historical distortion”? Every film ever made with any historical content is guilty of historical distortion, the question is how much distortion will film-makers and audiences accept? Yes, we should get our history from proper history books, but let’s not pretend that exciting cinematic depictions of historical events can’t change minds and influence people.That’s why we make them.

‘Oh no, not the nuts!’ is an uncharacteristically funny line spoken by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), the leader of a group of all female warriors in the West African kingdom of Dahomey circa 1823. In service of the erratic King Ghezo (John Boyega), Nanisca kicks ass and takes names with her well-drilled unit, but their Oya enemies are making an alliance with Portuguese slave-traders, and the balance of power is shifting. Alongside her veteran sidekick Izogie (Lashana Lynch), Nanisca will have to use of her fighting and diplomatic skills to keep her and her kingdom’s cause going.

‘With gunpowder, you don’t need a gun, just a spark,’ says Nanisca, and she’s right; the idea of freedom is what’s about to explode, and Nanisca’s highly trained army are right at the centre of it. This dynamic is complicated by the revelation that Nanisca’s daughter Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) is amongst her elite squad, but Nanisca’s philosophy is strong and simple enough to make sure that there’s no contradiction or hypocrisy; in her world, everything has to be earned.

While some of the action beats and last minute rescuse are hackneyed in the old Hollywood traditions, Gina-Prince Bytheswood’s film is anything but a hard watch, with big, fresh action scenes and impressive hand-to-hand combat. Lynch in particular excels in a memorable, inspiring role, and Davis embodies her tough-nut protagonist in a forthright way that’s never quite been seen before. Watching the women sharpen their nails into weapons before combat tells you everything about The Woman King; it goes all in as a popular entertainment, rolling back the male-dominance of the action genre and replacing it with something smart, dynamic and female driven.

The Woman King may have the same narrative flaws as the best blockbuster actions films do, but that’s not a problem when the narrative is so persuasive. I can’t say that it distorts my view of West African history in the 1820’s because I didn’t know enough about it before due to the historical bias that already exists in the way history has been taught. Those who seek to knock women’s cinema will have to come up with a different excuse not to like such powerful, likable films like The Woman King, since this ongoing argument doesn’t leave a scratch.


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  1. This is a maybe for me.

    Agree that historial misrepresntation is not a credible critique from an industry that awared the best picture Oscar to Braveheart (no knocks on Braveheart, but not exactly a history book on-screen.)

  2. I believe a lot of backlash came because of certain historians stating that this tribe themselves enslaved other conquered tribes to sell them to foreigners. I am glad that some African history got a little spotlight, that it was Hollywoodized comes with the territory, I can sympathise with both the people that hate this as well as the ones that liked this film. I am not knowledgable on events from my former Country to take part in those type of discussions. You hate it or you love it, your perogative… Great review.

    • Thanks! I do think this is a good Hollywood history movie, which isn’t to say that its accurate, just persuasive. Will look into the controversy, but like you, was happy to have a light shone on a historical period I knew nowt about…

  3. There really were several groups of strong women amazonian’esque warriors in Africa. This film seems to be based loosely on reign of 3rd king of Dahomey, King Houegbadja. He set up his tribe to be elephant hunters though, not trade in palm tree oil (boooo). Under his daughter’s rule, Queen Hangbe (1708-1711), she saw them as female bodyguards. Her bro King Agaja used them to defeat the Savi in 1727, and were acclaimed as Mino warriors (Our Mothers or Black Sparta Amazons) in Fon language. By mid 1800s, Agojie were a serious military army under King Ghezo (John Boyega in film); over 2000 strong. Female soldiers were signed up at age 8, aggressive training regime, survival skills, stoic RE pain and death, and were trained to run through thorn bushes. As more foreigns invaded Dahomey, always under attack and finally came under FR protection. I enjoyed the movie and your review of women who were more than just warriors.

    • The history books I read at school had precious little about this. Much more about fearless a British explorers showing the world who was best. It seemed like a crooked view at the time, and more so now. The women in this film kicked ass, and I can quite believe they had their origins in history which was rarely taught in the UK, largely for racial reasons. This film does a good job to balance things up…

  4. I remember reading something about the historical criticisms, but that’s pretty standard now (and not a bad thing) for any movie. I don’t know if it was critics piling on for political reasons. This movie has a 94 rating at RT and an A+ at Cinemascore.

    When are you going to do Manodrome? Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey?

    rescuse, is particular

    • Fixed, thanks! Yup, felt there was a laziness about the attacks in this, and critical laziness is not something I’d do.

      Can’t be bothered with Pooh slashers, the Banana Splits one did not work at all…Manodrone I’ll look out for…

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