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TIFF 2022 Review: Black Women Take Their Power Back in ‘The Woman King’

TIFF 2022 Review: Black Women Take Their Power Back in ‘The Woman King’

Watching the trajectory of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s directing career evolve has been an entertaining spectacle to watch, from heartwarming stories like The Secret Life of Bees, romances such as Love & Basketball and action-packed thrillers such as The Old Guard.  While Prince-Bythewood’s choice in genre may have shifted throughout her career, the common thread of centering women and keeping them at the forefront of her narratives have always been her trademark.

Prince-Bythewood has somehow managed to set the bar even higher for her own standard of women-empowered stories. Her latest movie, The Woman King, which made its World Premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, is by far her best film to date. This isn’t hyperbole here; Gina Prince-Bythewood gives her all in this story of the Agojie, the all-female unit of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s with skills and a fierceness unlike anything the world has ever seen.

During the premiere for the film, actor Viola Davis, who plays General Nanisca, called this film her magnum opus. And I would add that this indeed is the greatest performance of her career. Oscar voters everywhere should take note of her performance. The Woman King explores the Dahomey culture, which significantly valued women. This system of gender parity included all of the kingdom’s most important positions — from military generals to financial advisors and religious leaders. It reached all the way to the highest ranks where the king would bestow the title of Kpojito — or Woman King — upon a female reign mate. 

General Nanisca has quietly risen in the ranks to a level of power. Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) has a rebellious spirit and is an orphaned young girl who resists her adoptive father’s attempts to marry her off. She is handed over to Agojie and taken under their wing as a new trainee. While Nawi is stubborn, she is a born fighter and is the most resilient and strongest of the new recruits. While Nanisca sees the potential in her, the self-willed personality trait Naw embodies is something Nanisca does not approve of.

Nawi becomes close with Nanisca’s lieutenant, Izogie (Lashana Lynch). She is one of Dahomey’s fiercest warriors, tasked with training the military unit’s next generation. Amenza (Sheila Atim) is Nanisca’s second-in-command and trusted confidante. John Boyega plays King Ghezo, a real-life figure who reigned in the 19th century (1818–1858). There is compassion in this king, who cares for the women who serve him and also respects them. He does not condescend the way many men in positions of power often do. 

The first act of the film focuses a bit on story building with some intermittent scenes of action, so the pacing at times is a bit uneven. However in the second and third acts, the momentum picks up and keeps you fully engaged. The highlight of The Woman King that will have audiences talking are the fight scenes. The fight choreography in this film is by far the most impressive I’ve ever seen on screen in a very long time. 

The biggest takeaway here is that the fight scenes are plausible. When you have an episode of HBO’s House of the Dragon where Daemon Targaryen somehow can kill several men all by himself and leave completely unscathed and you’re forced to throw logic out of window, a film like The Woman King, which is based on real-life events, reminds you that you can create excellent fight choreography steeped in reality. One example was seeing how the warrior women were outnumbered by men with guns and only had machetes as their weapon of choice.

There are some moments that add levity and humor to the plot but are not too overbearing; in other words, the “Marvelization” of the dialogue with comedic banter or campy one-liners are not heavy handed in this film. When humor is used, its light, subtle, and makes sense for the moment. 

It is important to note that The Woman King is grounded in centering Black women at its core. Black women are leaders, teachers, community organizers, and heroes.  While some may compare this film to Black Panther or even the impending Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the movies couldn’t be any more different. While the Dora Milaje are women warriors and were in fact modeled after the Agojie warrior women, one film is rooted in fact and the other in fiction. 

The transatlantic slave trade was instrumental in the economy of the Kingdom of Dahomey, and The Woman King does explore the ugly history of their king’s participation in selling slaves. While I would say Black Panther was a beautiful film that did uplift female characters like Shuri and Dora Milaje, at the end of the day, the story was still centered on the male character of T’ChallaThe Woman King deserves its own canon, which is why I’m electing to make this distinction in this review. I feel strongly this is a film that will be talked about and analyzed long after its release. 

The Woman King made its World premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, and the movie will premiere in theaters nationwide September 16.

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