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The Woman King

Angry and disappointed that, yet again, the king has scheduled the annual king’s guard party at Chili’s.

Synopsis: Woman general fights off invaders from all sides, struggles to find free time for leisure or friendship. (Streaming on Amazon Prime as of February 2023.)

One of the good things about The Woman King is that it illuminates a part of history that many people outside of Africa are unfamiliar with — a sort of success story for women, specifically those who need role models for military careers.

It’s 1823 in West Africa and Viola Davis’ Nanisca is blazing trails for her Dahomey people and women in the military. The movie assures us that, by extension, she is lifting up all Africans and women. She strikes blows against ageism too. It’s not only young women who can beat the feathers out of people!

Nanisca is the general of an all-women military cadre called the Agoje, who serve as the king’s guard. We first see her leading her group of warriors on a night raid against their enemy the Oyo.  The Oyo Empire is very powerful and the wealthy Dahomey must pay them tribute. IRL, the Benin region of West Africa was plagued by neighbors imprisoning each other’s people and selling them into slavery. But in The Woman King, the Oyo are the bad guys and we are taking Viola’s POV.

The elite Agoje steal into the camp where the Oyo lounge around camp fires. Viola emerges into the open from tall grasses, just as the bad guys get an inkling that something is amiss. She looks proud and fierce — a much better look for her than her maid getup in The Help. Now the men are scared. Suddenly, Viola’s warriors spring up around her, giving a hard stare to the Oyo men. It seemed to me that the warrior women should’ve  just done a sneak attack instead of basically striking a cool pose for a few minutes before launching the attack. But who am I to question Viola Davis– or Gen. Nanisca?

The fighting is fierce, but the women are superior fighters, kicking the men’s asses. They sprint through the camp, locating their small band of imprisoned people and taking care to leave the Oyo children and elderly unharmed. Back to the Dahomey lands…

When next we see Viola in the clear light of day, she is striding through the palace on her way to the king on his throne. The king’s wives give her the stink eye as she passes– especially the favorite wife who gets to sit nearest to the king at dinner and parties. They’re just jealous!

King Ghezo is played by John Boyega, famous Star Wars Resistance fighter, Finn. He’s pleased to see Viola because he respects her counsel and her skill with a sword. She tells him that he should stop selling slaves and sell more palm oil. The king Won’t commit because he likes his rich guy palace life, so he mumbles something about needing to see some projection reports on that.

Making feeble excuses that she doesn’t have enough cowrie shells to share.

So, it’s like a half an hour into the movie and Viola always has this look on her face like she is having the worst work day ever. She might like to update her LinkedIn profile  and head to greener pastures, but she is utterly loyal to her people and to decapitating enemies. Yes, I’m afraid that’s an Agoje thing. But we can’t be too hard on her because I suppose it’s a kill or be killed sort of thing and because the filmmakers want us to remember that she is against slavery. So, while killing isn’t hard on her conscience, it is hard on her muscles.

She groans as she stretches her shoulders and then –one of the perks of being a general– she soaks in her private lagoon pool complete with ambient lighting for a soothing spa atmosphere.

I really had to hand it to Viola who is about fifty-sevens years old. I mean, hand-to-hand combat at that age?! She should be enjoying a nice army pension by this point. But she stays busy…

When Viola is not busy fighting neighboring enemies, she is busy supervising training of her army. She addresses new cadets, some of whom are prisoners of war, others are feisty girls who won’t mind their parents. Viola tells the young women that if they become soldiers, they will not be allowed to have a spouse or children and their days will be filled with unremitting hard work. The talk sounded similar to Elon Musk’s ultimatum to Twitter employees when he bought the company. But unlike Elon, it seems that Viola can accept constructive criticism.

At boot camp, the women run, grapple, behead straw mannequins and do each other’s hair. I like the use of the cowrie shells, which also seem to serve as medals of honor too.

O, look! Here is a young woman we can sympathize with: Nawi. She got kicked out of her family because she refused to marry an old man who was hitting her. She knocks him on his ass. And… off to the army she went.

Nawi–let’s call her Cute Girl–is taken under the wing of Viola’s righthand woman, Izogie (LaShana Lynch). You may recall that LaShana was an agent for Her Majesty’s Secret Service along with James Bond. I imagine that was good training for King Ghezo’s guard. She’s even stepped up her strength game: it looks like she’s been wrestling trucks and winning.

Cute Girl is a good recruit: tough and quick to pick up martial skills. But she is also a prankster, much to LaShana’s consternation. And Viola admonishes her that she is arrogant and needs discipline.

Cute Girl better get her act together because trouble is brewing on two fronts. Firstly, the bad guys have been rampaging around on horseback, shooting their rifles off willy nilly — much like modern day Texas. Especially bad is their leader Gen. Oba (Jimmy Odukoya) who likes slaving and war making. And I bet he is opposed to his Oyo people growing their agricultural sector. When he goes to pick up tribute from the Dahomey he is very rude. He refuses to acknowledge the effort his hosts have gone to in preparing a banquet. Instead, he brashly demands more tribute items; basically  the 17th Century equivalent of today’s crates of Chivas Regal, Patek Phillipe watches and Prada bags.

Secondly, there are more and more slave ships arriving in port every day. In fact, the lead bad guy is working to sell slaves to a Brazilian white man, Santo Ferreira. He’s played by nephew of Voldemort, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, so we know that he is evil– that and him being a slaver. But there’s another guy too…

White Slaver is accompanied by an acquaintance, a biracial man named Malik (Jordan Bolger) who seems to be taking a gap year. He is against slavery, but he wanted to sail along with WS because his mom was from the area. He also happens to be a Cute Guy. Can you see where this is going?

One day, Cute Guy is bathing in a picturesque swimming hole, fed by a waterfall. Cute Girl is in the area looking for special war rocks or something when she spies him in the altogether. Being a prankster, she swipes his clothes and calls him out of the water. Oh, my; this Cute Guy works out. They strike up a convo, which looks like it could lead to a meetup-for-coffee, but WS is making his way over, so Cute Girl Rushes off.

Remember that Cute Girl is expected to take a blood oath of celibacy if she gets inducted into the Agoje. The prob is, she’s a flirt. And Cute Guy is even more intrigued when he sees her around the port with other cadets and WS tells him that these young women are Amazons.  All of this will come to a crisis or denouement, shall we say. But not before Viola has a chance to give her troops a rousing speech about the future and freedom. And the joys of a warm soaking tub after battle.

So… I have to say that Movie Loon does not like violence IRL or the movies, but action movies can be fun if they aren’t glorifying beating and shooting people to a pulp. 21st Century cinema has been seeing a mix of female empowerment through violence. Whether it’s a sexy badass like ScarJo’s Black Widow or Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, these are women who can fight. I mean, I’m all for self defense and I realize that movies about diplomacy are not going to be blockbusters, but what are we saying here? Hey, females, you can be just as violent as the males!  Yeah, I feel like maybe we need some movies about heroic guys who fight for parental leave rights.

In conclusion, movie lovers… I don’t mean to pick on The Woman King, it makes a point of establishing the hero/ine as only fighting when she needs to, but it would be easier to cheer for a movie that went beyond showing women who are not victims, and showing women calling bulls*** on war making.

P.S.  For further info on the Dahomey people in the 1800’s click here.

Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:

Grade:  B

Cut go the Chase: Viola Davis is excellent as a weary hero in a semi-soapy story heavy on action.

Humor Highlight: The traditionally toxic masculinity-like attitudes that the women convey in lines like: To be a warrior, you must kill your tears or Love makes you weak.

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