Viola Davis captivates in this historical epic, redefined

Historical epics are a tricky genre. Similar to the biopic, they hold a perceived weight of being historically accurate, offering a sort of historical document. But they also are held to the standard of being engaging pieces of entertainment. And for all the beauty that comes from actual lived experiences, the facts of history sometimes don’t fit into tidy five act narratives. Thus filmmakers have to find spaces to allow for creative interpretation, and in some cases imagination, to create visions that exist as more than just historical documents.

To make matters even more difficult, occasionally the actual historical facts are obscured by forces of oppression and colonization, making it difficult or impossible to properly portray certain aspects of history with any real certainty. Of course, the idea of using historical figures for pseudo-accurate dramatic storytelling isn’t anything new; Shakespeare has a whole genre of plays based around the concept. But often, due to those same colonizing forces that erased the history of certain regions of the world, the stories that get retold come from repetitive, familiar territory. Namely, white men retelling glorified versions of other white men have littered the broad history of cinema, with end products ranging from the transcendent to the embarrassing.

Thus what makes The Woman King, the new film from Gina Prince-Bythewood, so remarkable is its savviness to use the language of these Euro-centric historical epics with such confidence towards a distinctly Black, feminist, and anti-colonialist story. As the film unfolds, it is this juxtaposition that truly sets Woman King apart as a distinctive and important film. By employing familiar narrative and visual tricks, Prince-Bytewood allows a new vision within a familiar framing. It is thrilling entertainment, yes, but it is also providing a different vision of the world, one that is daring and inspiring, adding an additional dimension that deepens the stakes of the emotional spine of the film. To put it bluntly, it’s like Braveheart told through an unapologetically Black and anti-colonialist view, celebrating and imaging an African experience rarely told.

Set in the early part of the 19th century in the West African country of Dahomey, Woman King tells the story of the Agojie, a historical fighting force composed entirely of women, often described by Western slave traders as the “African Amazons.” By using the Agojie as a central storytelling pivot, Prince-Bythewood, using a story by Maria Bello and Dana Stevens, is able to explore concepts ranging from alternative gender roles in non-Western society, the complicated role of Western African empires in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the reality of Black empires that were irreparably changed by the introduction of Western slavers. But it also provides an alternate view of history, where African women stand as guardians of virtue, truth and sisterhood in the face of impossible odds.

The center character is Nanisca, a fictionalized leader of the Agojie, played by Viola Davis with intense seriousness. Decorated and honored by both her home and her sisters in battle, Nanisca eludes simple classification. She is distant and cold, but also someone who engenders fierce loyalty from her troops. Davis’s portrayal isn’t afraid to show cracks in her armor, especially as ghosts of her past come to bear, but she is first and foremost a proud warrior, one willing to do whatever it takes to protect her homeland, who advocates for them to become better, and isn’t going to allow her own past to define or shackle her. She is inspirational in all senses of the world, and provides the central vision of an African identity that challenges the simple understanding of a people who were complacent victims.

Beyond the central character of Nanisca, Woman King is filled with wonderful supporting performances that dance around her central gravity. There is Thuso Mbedu as Nawi, the young recruit to the Agojie, turned over by her family due to her fiercely independent nature and unwillingness to be married away. The tension between Nawi’s impulsive nature and Nanisca’s bottled restraint provides one of those elemental story threads that pull the audience along. Lashana Lynch gives a scene-stealing performance as Izogie, a cocky but effective lieutenant amongst the Agojie. And John Boyega plays the practiced confidence of the historical King Ghezo, who wrestles with the question of whether he dare to defy Western slavers by refusing to participate in trading his own people.

The central conflict of the film centers around, as often is the case with historical epics, an impending war, namely between the Dahomey people and the neighboring Oyo. As the film tells it, the Oyo have found themselves greatly increased by their willingness to participate in the slave trade, and are themselves oppressing the Dahomey through a series of tributes paid to Oyo. The actual historical accuracy of this is debatable, but that is less the purpose of the framing that the film is using. Rather, it is more concerned with portraying the Agojie as fierce warriors, highlighting and celebrating their muscular, feminine blackness. Their place of honor within the Dahomey people is highlighted over and over again, as is their ingenuity and ruthlessness in battle. The Oyo may have more guns and, most importantly, horses, but the Dehomey have the Agojie. The film make a fairly compelling argument which is the better option.

But as one might suspect, the Oyo and Dahomey conflict is in reality a symptom of a larger injustice, namely the incursion of white slavers. Specifically, the main antagonists of the film are Portuguese colonizers, looking to take captives back to Brazil. Their influence in the region has thrown everything into chaos, and the film makes very explicit who the true villains of the story are, and precisely what damage they have done.

Ultimately, The Woman King is an aspirational tale, one that dares the viewer to shift their expectations. At one point, a bi-racial Brazilian colonizer named Malik, played by Jordan Bolger, puts it mostly simply. When explaining how his Dahomey-native mother longed for him to see her home, he admits that he never thought of his African heritage of having warriors and kings. It is this narrative that Woman King hopes to rectify, the tell a story that is unquestionably about slavery that doesn’t solely focus on the pain and inhumanity of the practice itself, but rather provides an alternative vision of what the world could be, and very well was. It dares you to think of Africans as kings and warriors, not just into the future, but into the erased past. It bridges what was, what is and what could be into a beautiful bloody vision, one that demands you to widen your perspective beyond simply the stories that you have been told before.

By telling this story, it reorients the scars of colonization to better understand that impact the slave trade truly had. And it does so in a language that you already know, already speak to your bones. It is the great empathetic trick, of showing you a perspective outside of your own, but tricking you into thinking you saw it before. By drawing from shared narrative language, it draws us closer together and underlines the basic humanity to these stories we tell.

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