A Brief Thought for Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King: A Review

Theme Quote

‘I have always believed that women can do anything they set their hearts on’

  • Pam Golding

Film Title: The Woman King

Auteur/Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Publishers/Producers: Cathy Schulman, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon and Mario Bello

Year of Production: 2022

Genre: Historical Film

Duration: 2 hours 15 Minutes

Reviewer: Dr Eyoh Etim


I saw The Woman King on the evening of Friday, 16th September, 2022, at the Uyo Silverbird Cinema. The movie, I must say, lived up to its hype. Through the artistry of the movie director and her team, I was transported back in time to experience life in the Africa of the 19th century. The film creatively recreates the story of the Agojie of the Dahomey Kingdom in colonial West Africa. The Agojie were a group of female warriors who defended the Dahomey territory against their enemies, particularly the Oyo Empire at the peak of the European/Arab slave trade. In many ways, this movie confirms most of what we have already known about African women in precolonial and colonial societies; apart from dissipating any doubts as to the courage of Africa’s precolonial women. The Woman King corroborates the facts textualised about precolonial African women in texts like John Kargbo’s Let Me Die Alone and Akachi Ezeigbo’s The Last of the Strong Ones, which depict women as community leaders, warriors and partners with the men in times of crisis. The struggle of the Agojie also calls to mind the 1929 incident that has come to be known as Ikot Abasi Women’s Uprising, which accounts for the African women’s resistance against colonial tax.

In the movie, one witnesses the strength of women as guardians and protectors of society at momentous periods in history. Packed with tropes such as humour, suspense, flashback and insightful dialogues, The Woman King is a captivating movie that narrates the story of Nanisca, Nawi and Izogie, among other Agojie warriors, who rise to the occasion when it really matters and prove their mettle in wars against the oppressive Oyo Empire. What I have gained from this movie is the insight that though the precolonial Africa was largely patriarchal, the women had and knew their rights, and were able to exercise them even if they had to fight. The Agojie did not only fight against internal oppressors like the Oyo Empire, they also fought against slavery in all its forms in the 19th century.

Plot: The Woman King has an episodic plot structure which is derived from its non-chronological storyline. The movie is mostly a selection of the defining moments in the narrative of the heroic acts of the Agojie. We are exposed to the strength and bravery of the women-warriors in their various fight scenes where they prove themselves against the men from the Oyo Empire who look down on them. In the story, it is revealed that the woman as king is a rare occurrence in the deeply patriarchal milieu, though it is not impossible. There has been a woman-king many years before, which sets up an expectation in the mind of the reader that there is going to be another. And this is exactly what happens towards the end of the movie when Nanisca is proclaimed king when she is chosen by the current king, Ghezo, as wife. It should be noted that Nanisca earns this position through her courage and exploits for the Kingdom, through a series of self-sacrificial acts which earn for her the respect and loyalty of the people.

When the movie begins, Nanisca is depicted in a war scene where the Agojie fight against the all-men warriors of the Oyo Empire who have broken a peace treaty to invade the Dahomey Kingdom. The Agojie surpass the men in skill and bravery and, in the end, defeat them. They return to the Kingdom victorious. It is also revealed in the story that the Dahomey Kingdom pays tributes to the Oyo Empire, which makes the Dahomey Kingdom a vassal state to the Oyo empire. But the new King is ambitious and desires to return the Kingdom to independence. However, he has to rely on the Agojie for this to come about. This explains the refusal of the Dahomey Kingdom to pay tributes to the Oyo empire, an act that results in full-scale war.

This war reveals the major issues and the values of society at the time. One of such issues is colonialism and the slave trade, of which African leaders were active participants. Nanisca understands these issues well and this informs most of her war ideologies. She sees the evil in slave trade even though it was profitable to the Kingdom. Slave trade robs the continent of its most valuable resources – human resources. This explains her push for the article of trade between the Africans and the Europeans to change from human goods to oil. King Ghezo equally shares this ideology.

Another important issue that is dramatised in the movie is the greed and inhumanity of the colonial African leaders who, blinded by the insane profit of the slave trade, enslaved their peoples through endless wars in a bid to harvest more slaves. This equally calls to mind the disposition of contemporary African leaders who have chosen to exploit the people and abandon them as long as it serves their personal and selfish agendas.

I remember noticing doubts on the faces of my students when I told them that the Europeans used to bow down to our kings as a mark of respect in the early days of colonial exploration. This movie confirms this. Note how King Ghezo rejects the Europeans’ offer of protection, opting to trade with them only on the basis of equality.

Setting: The Woman King is set in Africa of the 19th century. Specifically, the movie revolves around the war of liberation fought around Dahomey in the Oyo Empire in the 1820s. Thus, the movie is effectively set in colonial Africa. This explains the presence of the slavers in the film. Their presence also signifies cultural crisis, as the strange values of the white people begin to infect the land. Indices of the setting of the film are seen in the dress sense of the African and European characters, their languages, the depiction of the African landscape, among others.

Themes: Among the themes depicted in the film are the bravery of women in precolonial and colonial times, colonialism and its consequences, the evils of slavery, the greed of colonial African leaders, war and women in the African society, freedom through war and struggle.

Characterisation: The film has a large cast with the major characters being Nanisca, the female war general, Nawi, her daughter, King Ghezo of Dahomey Kingdom and Izogie. Nanisca demonstrates leadership and courage as the one who raises and trains the female warriors. She leads them into battle and sets the rule of conduct for the Agojie. Her daughter, Nawi, takes after her. Nawi returns to Nanisca in strange and dramatic circumstances. It happened that Nanisca was once captured by enemy soldiers and raped. This resulted in a pregnancy. When she escaped to freedom and gave birth, Nanisca decided to throw away the baby so as to continue her duties as Agojie (the Agojie could neither marry nor have children). The person saddled with the responsibility to throw away the child gave it away to the missionaries who raised the child. The child is then adopted at the orphanage by a rich man who later wants to marry her off to a rich farmer. The rich farmer is abusive which causes Nawi to call off the marriage after resisting the man’s abuses. Nawi’s adopted father has no other option than to take Nawi to become a soldier among the Agojie. This is how Nawi returns to her mother. Nawi is equally a symbol of bravery; she is beautiful, intelligent and a great warrior. King Ghezo is a visionary leader who is interested in the wellbeing of his people.

Language and Style: The Woman King uses language realistically. It has European languages when the European characters interact. It has African language when African characters interact. English is, however, the dominant language in the movie. The film’s style is realised through contrast, as can be seen in the depiction of female and male warriors, the Europeans and the Africans, men and women, good and evil, among others. Humour is deployed to engage the audience and ease tension in the film. Suspense is another trope deployed to sustain the interest of the audience. Flashback is used to recall Nanisca’s story about how Nawi was born and then disposed of. Humour is achieved through dialogue and action in the film. Irony is seen in how the underrated female warriors defeat the pompous Oyo warriors. There is also literary allusion as this film echoes works like Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Ezeigbo’s The Last of the Strong Ones and Black Panther. Some of the memorable expressions in the film are ‘fight or we die’ said by Nanisca and ‘the first rule training is always obey Izogie’ said by Izogie to Nawi as part of her training when she newly joins the elite female fighters. One of the white men in the film refers to the Agojie as ‘among the bloodiest bitches in Africa’.

 Evaluation: Having seen the movie The Woman King, I cannot help but observe its high-quality production realised through the careful selection of cast, skillful directing, scoring and editing. The characters are real to life, a feat mostly achieved through rich costumes/props and a combination of dialogue, action and gestures. The movie really engages the audience as I noted the responses and comments it drew from the theatre-goers. I remember with pride the applause that greeted the end of the movie at the cinema. I think that everyone of African descent should see this movie if they are interested in reinforcing their historical sense. African women stand to be inspired by this movie when they see the heroism of these female warriors staged. Contemporary African women also have their war or struggle and can take a cue from the Agojie. However, I think the war scenes were graphic, harsh and brutal. But what did I expect from a realistic war movie?

Conclusion: I have attempted a review of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King based on my experience of the film at the cinema. I find the movie quite entertaining and educative. It has the ability to motivate aspiring female leaders in postcolonial Africa. The movie also teaches African history and prompts us to reflect on our current circumstances which are caused by insensitive leadership on the continent. The Woman King is also a masterpiece in its cinematics. I congratulate the director and her team and encourage everyone to see this movie.

Recommendation: I hereby recommend The Woman King to film lovers all over the world, especially to Africans and African women. Apart from being entertained, the film can motivate, educate and inspire. Happy viewing.

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