I caught an early show of The Woman King (2022), which opens in theaters this weekend, and OMG I am so incredibly impressed! This movie got rave reviews from its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and no wonder. This is a beautiful, powerful, exciting film. It combines a sweeping historical epic with an intimate view of female bonding, trauma, and resilience without being cliche yet feeling universal.
The story is set in 1832 in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey, where General Nanisca (Viola Davis) runs the all-female warriors called the Agojie. Their new ruler, King Ghezo (John Boyega) is struggling against the Oyo Empire, which is aligned with white European slave-traders. Nanisca warns her king to stop his part in the slave trade and instead trade with palm oil the Dahomey can harvest and manufacture.
Other than Ghezo, all the characters are fictional, but the basic outline of the story is historical. You can nitpick the details over at History vs. Hollywood. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood has said her influences were historical movies like The Last of the Mohicans, Braveheart, and Gladiator, and similarly to those, The Woman King plays a little fast and loose with the accuracy of the story in service to the drama. I don’t say that as a bad thing because it really works, and I do think sometimes we (yes, I’m including Frock Flicks in this) can be too much sticklers for the historical accuracy when there’s just a damn fine story being told.
Just getting this film made was a monumental feat, given Hollywood’s disinclination towards risk. But also researching this little-known and glossed-over part of history was a challenge. In particular, the director wanted to recreate the world from the Dahomey point of view instead of a white revisionist one: Gina Prince-Bythewood told Vanity Fair:
“Our production designer, Akin McKenzie, started combing through and excising anything from the colonizer’s point of view. He knew which photos were fake and created for the World Fair. There are so few actual photos of these women. Most of them are recreated.”
She continued this theme in Forbes, saying:
“We did the deepest dive into the research, finding which sources were accurate about this time and place, the kingdom, and the women. Some were very offensive in the way they were written because of the lens they were looking through. That said, we found these incredible journals written by these two men who went to the kingdom and their descriptions of the palace, the costume, the people, and the environment, and that’s what I wanted to put up on the screen.”
And, of course, they were filming during COVID lockdowns in South Africa, so scenes that would have had 300 actors were limited to half that number at times. Actors and stunt performers were quarantined in their hotels before filming face-to-face.
One problem with reviewing a movie that’s in theaters right now is that I don’t have screencaps, just these few promo stills that have been released. So you can’t see the breadth and variety of the gorgeous costuming in The Woman King!
Costume designer Gersha Philips started the designs for the Agojie warriors based on the baggy pants they historically wore, then she incorporated wrap skirts, a style also found in her research. Both because a warrior’s costume has to move with the body, and film-making is very fast-paced and rough on materials, some concessions were made. She explained in Variety: “I had to consider functionality. Everybody had to fight, so we ended up using a stretch-knit fabric so they could do what they needed to do in it.”
Decorations like cowry shells had historical, cultural meanings. Philips told Variety: “When the warriors won battles, the king would give them as gifts, or he would give the shells as jewelry.” Thus, Nanisca (Viola Davis) wears a sash and headpiece with cowry shells, and other warriors have cowry shells woven into their head jewelry, armbands, belts, or pouches.
Authentic fabrics were key to many costumes as well. Gersha Philips commissioned a Gambian artist to create indigo block prints on batik cotton. She also had Ghanan weavers from the Bolgatanga area create strip-woven material: “We had our fabric woven in 10-centimeter pieces, and it’s all joined together to make what became the Agojie palace tunics.”
While there are battle uniforms and palace guard outfits, there’s also gorgeous flowing robes that the king wears (of which this is the only pic I can find so far).
His wives wear elaborate outfits with cowry shell headdresses and beautifully styled hair, plus colorful makeup. Even the palace eunuchs have brilliant purple robes. And there are fantastic scenes when the Agojie wear colorful “civilian” clothes for dancing and just enjoying each other.
That’s one thing that was a pleasant surprise about this movie. I went in thinking it would be a lot of big battles — and yes, it does open with a battle and there’s a couple more at key junctures. But there’s also a lot of music and dancing! It’s a really joyful film, female joy, Black joy, African joy, and it’s infectious joy. So much of this movie is about women, just women, not women looking for love and romance, but women trying to be the best of themselves that they can be. That is an incredibly joyous thing in the end.
Are you going to see The Woman King? What’s stopping you?
Pity it’s not just fantasy but an actual distortion of history.
The costumes however look wonderful.
No, this is better than fantasy bec. it is rooted in history. Black Panther can make ppl think that Black female warriors only exist in fantasy. But the Agojie were real, & this depiction of them is brilliant. Have you seen The Woman King?
The agojie is indeed a very intriguing institution. But the kingdom of Dahomey makes a very problematic ‘good guy’ given its history as a slave trading state.
Which is part of the story in the film.
From your review, you make it seem that historical accuracy is a matter of details, not overall honesty. But the portrait of a strongly anti-slavery Agoji leader is a complete fabrication. This aligns with what I’ve read / studied about slavery in Africa – that the Africans themselves were fully complicit in the trade and practiced slavery in their own territory regardless of the Europeans.
Don’t you think there’s an agenda here, just as there is with pretty much any historical movie? That as a society we’re still married to the “white slavers bad, non-white slavers not so bad” idea? (Not to mention: “if a woman is a warrior she’s a badass no matter what she actually fights for”)
I say this as a non-American who is constantly baffled at the very American-centric suggestion that slavery is an intrinsically racial matter, whereas it’s been practiced by anyone against anyone else who was available to be enslaved at the time.
The overall honesty of this movie is in the womens’ stories, so yes, there are some historical details that are glossed over. As will every single historical movie/TV show in existence. I really wonder if you’ve watched the film.
No, I didn’t, I am commenting on your review and on what you said. What I’m interested in, since it’s not the first time I encounter it, is the impact of this sort of stories on public opinion. I am interested in it since I see it in real life all the time and it worries me. E.g. going from one thing we should agree on – “slavery is bad” to one that is divisive – “slavery is a white people thing, white people bad.” If movies perpetuate this false notion, it will, and does, breed resentment.
You might think I have an agenda, but I am just making observations. The US has an outsized cultural impact and his pop culture shapes opinion around the world. I believe that rising powers will try to do the same with movies and other cultural products; China is already.
To be clear, I haven’t seen the film. I’m only responding to you, here. I’m from the US, and I’m largely self-taught in history (we didn’t much in great detail while in school – we had to be ready to pass standardized tests (there’s sarcasm there that might not translate culturally)).
Specifically in the US, slavery WAS a racial thing. Native Americans were the first to be enslaved, by largely European settlers, but they didn’t have the required population numbers or immunity to smallpox (and other diseases) to make it a sustainable institution. So, the Atlantic slave trade increased immensely to supply the demand. Please note that I’m not addressing the source of the enslaved people, whether by other African nations or European powers. You’re correct in that it’s complex, and I don’t have space to honestly address it here.
An important thing to note is the effect of English common law in the US. We didn’t really inherent Roman common law like the rest of Europe (Louisiana is an exception, due to settlement history). Under English common law, child support was the responsibility of the father, and children inherited the legal status of him. In 1656, Elizabeth Grinstead, a multiracial woman, won her indenture case and was freed. In response, the Virginia Assembly upended historical practice and stated children would inherit the status of their mother.
This resulted in enslavers assaulting (but worse, actually) enslaved women, creating an ongoing source of mixed-race enslaved people. Some individuals (like Sally Hemmings) had 7 European great-grandparents, but were still enslaved because of their mother’s status. It was the 1 enslaved (Black) great-grandparent that passed on the status, and ensured that race & slavery would be so entwined. I’m trying to condense 400 years of very complex history, so please understand that I’ve skipped some points. I would highly recommend Not Your Mommas History, a YouTube channel/company run by Black reenactor Cheyney McKnight, for more informative & nuanced discussions. Link is here: http://www.notyourmommashistory.com/
We’ve long been supporters of Cheyney McKnight on Patreon.
Then you should see the movie before making observations. For one, the issue of slavery is more nuanced (it’s about economics leading to military advantage), and for two (as I keep saying) it is not the most important part of the story at all. If this movie has a major impact, it will be because of the amazing portrayal of strong women who have complex & interesting relationships with other strong women in a time period that ppl thought women were weak & subjugated. It’s far more a feminist movie than about slavery.
Which is drastically misrepresented in the movie. Unfortunately. There really was a movement to replace the slave trade with palm oil trade and it was supported by the agojie among other power groups in the kingdom but it was in no way an anti slavery movement as slaves tended and harvested the palm tree plantations.
“Drastically misrepresented”? No, it’s just not the main storyline. If you watched the film, you’d know the real story is about Nanisca & Nawi. Much like Gladiator isn’t primarily about the Roman Emperor’s politics.
One thing I definitely like is that the women of the agojie are sturdily built and athletic not slender waifs as all too many movies depict supposed female fighters.
The actors worked out in advance of the film, so it’s legit!
Good for them! It shows.
I enjoy waf-fu as a fantasy but all too many shows are confusing it with reality.
I want to. Hopefully, it will be playing at a nearby theatre.
I would like to see it, but I’m afraid there would be too much graphic violence. I’m very squeamish and have a photographic memory; if I see it on screen I pretty much remember it vividly for decades. I have to be very careful with what I watch. Which sucks, because this sounds like a really interesting and cool movie! I guess I’ll just have to appreciate it from afar, like a lot of media these days.
Well, there are a few violet scenes but it’s not as graphic as, say, Game of Thrones. Minimal blood & such, it’s mostly the action of bodies & weapons going at it. I’m not a fan of action movies, war scenes, & such (on the big screen, those scenes make me anxious & can even give me migraines!), but I did enjoy this & was not annoyed or disturbed by what was shown, esp. since there was so much less than I was prepared for.
That’s good to know. Maybe I will be able to watch it after all. Thanks!
This looks amazing. Viola Davis was born to be queen.
I must say John Boyega looks good enough to eat! 😁
I’m no specialist on the Dahomey kingdom, but I’ve seen their finely worked helmets in museums. Why aren’t the high-ranking woman warriors wearing them? The armour is also unrealistically light in my opinion.
Well no helmets is like no hats in flim/TV — it’s easier to see actors faces. Not saying it’s right, but that’s the reason that’s often given.
Replying to Florence and Trystan.
Trystan, you’re right that I should see the film before commenting on a post about a film. However, since I’ve seen this topic referenced elsewhere, I felt justified commenting on a broader issue using the film as a jumping point. Thanks for letting me do this on your blog.
As for racism and slavery: as a non-American, I feel that it is problematic that, since slavery was mostly (though not entirely!) a racial thing in the US and in the Americas in general, and since American culture is so dominant, this is both muddling the issue and causing problems to other people who are not American. When I, a white Italian who absolutely abhors slavery but is, like many Europeans, acutely aware of the complexities of history, keeps being blamed for slavery as a white person, I worry about US cultural dominance having an impact in international and even human-to-human relations in a very deep and unsettling way. I worry about the dominance of the US cultural industry and its role in convincing people they should hate whites because of slavery while slavery was an ugly but persistent human affair, and nowhere near a prerogative of whites (or any other group thus defined).
Since you often (rightly) rant about what is and isn’t historically accurate as if I did (and I believe it does) had some actual real-world importance, I felt justified talking about it here.
P.S. Someone should make a movie about Olaudah Equiano / Gustavus Vassa
I’m white (mostly Central & Western European ancestry as they immigrated to the Americas). I understand what you’re saying about the historical universality of slavery, that it wasn’t always one group versus everyone else. I don’t have a good answer. I’m not trying to dodge. I just honestly don’t have anything helpful to add other than you’re correct about the outsized impact of US media culture.
I absolutely second a film about Olaudah Equiano. He was one of the few “historical persons of note” that we learned about in secondary school. He was fascinating, and brave.
All right Trystan, I’ll stop hijacking. Viola Davis, Sheila Atim, and John Boyega are all SO, SO good and I hope the film does well.
Yeah, I don’t think being afraid that ppl will watch this movie & feel like only whites should be blamed for slavery is a real issue. And even if it were, so what? White Europeans did benefit most from the cross-Atlantic slave trade, far more than the Black Africans who also participated.
An argument for why it IS a real issue, to Africans as well: https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/10/7/the-woman-king-the-truth-about-slavery-matters
It’s an issue but to focus on it above all else does the movie a disservice. Movies are NOT history, a point we’ve discussed before endlessly:
Point taken. Personally, I think that if you make a historical movie (that isn’t fantastical) you be as historically accurate as you can, but I’ll read your takes on it.
There never will be such a thing as a historically accurate movie — something that’s been far better explained already here:
We focus on historical costume bec. it’s fun & entertaining for us, not to be pedantic. We know movies are not & never will be historically accurate.
One thing that is fascinating to me (sorry to be abusing your hospitality here) is how perception of reality is shaped by movies, more than we realize. Even if we know that what we see isn’t real, it still affects us on a deep level. The article you linked talks about Braveheart: well I had a childhood friend who got so into Braveheart it started a life-long fascination with Scotland, moved to the UK, got engaged to a Scottish woman, etc. Representations of historical reality create love, but can also breed resentment when only one side of the story is told.
I am also fascinated by how both globally influential and self-referential Hollywood is. Just to give an example, when Crazy Rich Asians came out, it was presented as this huge deal as if there had never been a movie before with only Asians in it, while in reality Asian cinematography is both bigger and, to me, possibly better than America’s. Having lived in Singapore, it was also funny how those supposedly representative Asians didn’t even sound like they were from Singapore at all. I think it’s a similar story with American movies about Africa made by black Americans.
The real Nansica,was an abused child soldier who died in her first battle. The Agojie was an intriguing but far from empowering organization. Interestingly many members were slaves, rather like the Ottoman janissaries.
Agojie did carry swords but their main weapon was the musket or rifle and they fought in ranks, usually in the center of the formation around the king. They were effective bodyguards and raiders but were slaughtered in melee fighting against male soldiers, as one would sadly expect.
And that jumping in the air to deliver a down cut with their short swords is an incredibly silly if showy move. In real life they have been shot in mid air or skewered by bayonet or Spear coming down.
Have you seen the movie? If so, did you see the same one I did? Bec. you missed the performances, the drama, the heart & soul of the film. We’re all for nitpicking but there are also plenty of times where a good movie is just a fucking GOOD movie. This film has so much to say about women’s lives & sisterhood & Black women’s power — all topics that are vastly ignored on screen — that your obsession with historical detail sounds misogynistic or at least myopic.