The Woman King

Reviewed by Vaughan Ames

A film I had been looking forward to immensely, 'The Woman King' promised to be a blockbuster with a social conscience – a $50million budget, big stars AND both a definite anti-racist and feminist plot; did it live up to its promise?

Based on real historic happenings in 1820s Africa where the slave trade was big business and local tribes were warring with each other to capture more potential slaves, the Kingdom of Dahomey was defended by the Agojie, an all-female warrior army, against the larger and richer Oyo empire. Viola Davis played Nanisca, the general of the Agojie, fearlessly leading her troops into battle (and the film had some great battles – all played by the actors themselves who trained for four months before filming began). The writers had changed history a bit to make Nanisca an anti-slaver, trying her best to persuade her King to sell palm oil instead. They had also bolted on a lost daughter, Nawi, who she had given up years earlier, who just happened to turn up as her best recruit and give the film an opportunity for some gentle reconciliation scenes between the battles.

So the blockbuster part was well thought out and well made – it has become a successful film in the States. For me, it was a bit 'too blockbuster'; the formulaic arrival of the daughter, Nawi, the big fight scenes where Nanisca takes on Oba, the leader of the Oyo fighters (losing her first fight with him, of course, but winning in the end) and the almost inevitable love between Nawi and one of the white sailors were very Hollywood, but then again the film was aimed at a mass audience so not surprising I guess.

On the other hand, it was very refreshing to have such a female (and black) cast and crew, giving the fighting a different feel to the norm; they may have been tougher than the men, but they somehow showed that war was a bad thing, not (too) glamourised. As one reviewer wrote, '8/10 for entertainment, 4/10 for history'.