The Woman King

USA/Canada 2022, 135 mins
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

+ intro and Q&A

The Agojie were an all-female unit of warriors who protected the African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. The story follows the emotionally epic journey of General Nanisca who trains the next generation of recruits to defend their way of life and fight against enslavement.

Presented by Dr Michelle Asantewa, a member of the African Odysseys steering Committee, the screening will be followed by a discussion of its themes and treatment of African history.

There is a paradox in the kenning-like title of this latest feature from director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, 2000; The Secret Life of Bees, 2008; The Old Guard, 2020). A ‘woman king’ is surely a queen – but unlike Shante (Jayme Lawson), the chief consort to King Ghezo (John Boyega) and a woman who very much desires the luxurious, sheltered life of a conventional queen, the Agojie, a group whose very name means ‘king’s wives’, in no way conform to the expectations of their gender: they are the king’s female guard, preferring the hardship and discipline of a warrior’s life to the sex, marriage, baby-making and domestic servitude that would otherwise be their lot. ‘Woman King’, it will emerge, is a near-mythical status conferred upon a woman whom the king regards as his equal in counsel and vision. Equality, however, is an elusive idea here, under constant negotiation.

There are other contradictions. For while The Woman King is set in a particular time and place – the West African Kingdom of Dahomey in 1823 – and while Ghezo was an actual king and the Agojie were an actual fighting force under him, other characters are more nebulous. The middle-aged Agojie general Nanisca (Viola Davis) is named after a real person, except that that person joined the ‘Dahomey Amazons’ as a teenager over half a century later, in 1889. Similarly, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), the 19-year-old recruited to the Agojie after violently rejecting the older man her family has chosen to be her husband, is named after an actual woman said to have been the last surviving Agojie, who claimed to have fought as a teenager in the Second Franco-Dahomean War in 1892 (some 70 years after the film’s events), and who lived till 1979!

So Dana Stevens’ screenplay (from a story she wrote with Maria Bello) plays fast and loose with historical chronology, while even the recorded names Nanisca and Nawi are Anglicised versions, with no close equivalent in the local Fon language. Other characters, like Nanisca’s tough lieutenants Amenza (Sheila Atim) and Izogie (Lashana Lynch), or the Portuguese-Brazilian slaver Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) and his half-Dahomean companion Malik (Jordan Bolger), are fictions (although Ghezo did have close relations with the Brazilian slave trader Francisco Félix de Sousa). Even as the film concedes from the outset the uncomfortable truth that the real Dahomey under Ghezo was no less actively involved in slave-trading than its enemy the Oyo Empire, it also implies that by the film’s end, such practices, at Nanisca’s urging, would soon be replaced with palm oil production – whereas in reality, Ghezo was still selling into slavery both captives from raids (often conducted by the Agojie) and even Dahomey’s own citizens till the end of his reign three decades later. Let’s not even mention the mass human sacrifices carried out annually in the Kingdom – after all, the film does not mention them.

None of this really matters. For with its rape-revenge plotting (Nanisca’s opposition to the Oyo general Oba Ade, played by Jimmy Odukoya, is deeply personal), its improbable reunion of a long-estranged mother and daughter, its emancipating romance and its exploits of derring-do, The Woman King keeps reminding us that it is a myth, and that its play on history is exaggerated and idealised. Indeed, its empowered women have not a little in common with the all-female militia (in fact modelled on the Agojie) in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) or the Amazon army in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017), making this a sort of superhero story avant la lettre set in an African past. Prince-Bythewood’s film is not so much accurately recreating the past as allegorising a timeless struggle – for liberation, for equality and for progress – and it creatively engenders a brief moment when men and women, white and Black, find an agreeable accommodation with each other and together overcome oppression.

Certainly The Woman King is an adventure epic, full of vicious close-quarters battles and daring rescues, but it is also an exemplary intersectional feminist call to arms for the African sisterhood to keep building on the achievements of their female ancestors and to keep fighting – and dancing – as they did, or might have done, back in Dahomey, with or without the approval of their patriarch, in a film itself written, directed, shot and edited by an ensemble of women.
Anton Bitel, Sight and Sound, November 2022

Dr Michelle Yaa Asantewa was born in Guyana, South America in 1969. She migrated to the UK to reunite with her mother in 1980. Her interest in African traditional spiritual practices and cultural identity prompted her to do a PhD on the Guyanese Komfa ritual. She taught English Literature, Editing and Creative Writing at London Metropolitan University and currently facilitates writing workshops as an Independent Scholar. She set up Way Wive Wordz Publishing, Editing and Tuition Services, an education platform to accommodate a range of learning and creative aspirations. Her first novel Elijah and poetry collection The Awakening and Other Poems were self-published in 2014. Guyanese Komfa: The Ritual Art of Trance – her PhD thesis, Something Buried in the Yard and Mama Lou Tales: A Folkloric biography of a Guyanese Elder, were published in 2016. She lives in London. She writes a regular blog: waywivewordzspiritualcreative that highlights a range of cultural, educational, creative a spiritual experiences.

Robin Walker, also known as The Black History Man, is one of the UK’s most pre-eminent African scholars. Born in London, Walker read economics at LSE before studying African World Studies under Dr Femi Biko and later Kenny Bakie. Since 1992 Robin has been lecturing in adult education, universities and conferences on African World Studies, Egyptology and Black History. Robin has authored or co-authored 13 books, including classic titles such as Classical Splendour, Roots of Black History Sword, Seal and Koran, the best study there has ever been on the Songhai Empire of West Africa (Everyday life in a West African Empire). Perhaps his most notable and critically acclaimed work is the title When We Ruled, which is hailed as the single most advanced historical synthesis on the history of Africa and its people to date. This established Walker as a leading authority on African studies in the English-speaking world.

Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood
©: Inc. TriStar Productions, eOne Features LLC, TSG Entertainment II LLC
Production Companies: JuVee Productions, Welle Entertainment
Presented by: eOne, TriStar Pictures, TSG Entertainment II
South African Production Services: Known Associates Entertainment
Executive Producer: Peter McAleese
Produced by: Cathy Schulman, Viola Davis,Julius Tennon, Maria Bello
Unit Production Manager: Mayra Garcia
1st Assistant Director: Dale Butler
Script Supervisor: Morag Cameron
Casting by: Aisha Coley
Screenplay by: Dana Stevens
Story by: Maria Bello, Dana Stevens
Director of Photography: Polly Morgan
Visual Effects Supervisor: Sara Bennett
Special Effects Supervisor: Cordell McQueen
Edited by: Terilyn A. Shropshire
Production Designer: Akin McKenzie
Supervising Art Director: Christophe Dalberg
Set Decorator: Birrie Le Roux
Costume Designer: Gersha Phillips
Music by: Terence Blanchard
Sound Designer: Jay Wilkinson
Production [Sound] Mixer: Derek Mansvelt Re-recording Mixers: Kevin O’Connell, Tony Lamberti
Supervising Sound Editor: Becky Sullivan
Sound Effects Editor: Hector Gika
Stunt Coordinator/Fight Coordinator: Daniel Hernandez
Stunt Co-ordinator: Grant Powell
Fight Coordinators: Johnny Gao, Filip Ciprian Florian, Stuart Jacob Williamson

Viola Davis (Nanisca)
Thuso Mbedu (Nawi)
Lashana Lynch (Izogie)
Sheila Atim (Amenza)
Hero Fiennes Tiffin (Santo Ferreira)
John Boyega (King Ghezo)
Jayme Lawson (Shante)
Adrienne Warren (Ode)
Masali Baduza (Fumbe)
Jordan Bolger (Malik Diallo)
Jimmy Odukoya (Oba Ade)

USA/Canada 2022
135 mins

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