In his latest column, Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship Research Fellow, Professor Adekeye Adebajo, discusses the pan-African elements and the importance of black female representation in the film "The Woman King".
The $50m action epic The Woman King, directed by African American Gina Prince-Bythewood and filmed in Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal — recounts the tale of the all-women regiment of Agojie warriors from the Dahomey kingdom in 1823.
The film has taken in $65m in its first three weeks of release, with black moviegoers accounting for 59% of the audience. It is expected eventually to gross more the $100m. The Woman King has inevitably elicited comparisons with Marvel’s $1bn-grossing largely black cast, Afro-futuristic Black Panther. That film’s Dora Milaje female warriors were modelled on Dahomey’s Agojie.
Black feminists like Grenadian scholar Eudine Barriteau noted that Black Panther reinforced fundamental gender roles rather than transcending them, complaining that female characters had been given only peripheral and supporting roles. In stark contrast, women are at the very core of The Woman King, which is inspired by true historical events rather than Black Panther’s mythical, scientifically advanced African country.
The Woman King has also been compared to Hollywood blockbusters Braveheart and Gladiator. The impressive cinematography brings the audience up close to the hand-to-hand battle scenes. As Wendy Ide observed in The Guardian, the movie is “muscular in its action sequences, sweeping in scope; a big, flexing, show-off spectacle of a movie”.
This is an epic griot’s tale involving a carnival of armies, martial rituals, lavish costumes, devious slavers and palace politics. The warrior-women unleash frightful battle cries as they breathlessly run through thorny forests and over other obstacle courses while decapitating stuffed enemies in a draining boot camp.
The movie focuses centrally on the women warriors of Dahomey — wielding swords, spears, machetes, and ropes — and the stories of their close bonds of black sisterhood as they defend their kingdom from the rampaging Oyo empire.
There are many standout performances from the pan-African cast. The formidable Oscar-winning Viola Davis plays Nanisca, the fearless abolitionist generalissimo of the Agojie. Her role is described by Jamie Broadnax of Black Girl Nerds as “the greatest performance of her career”, while movie critic Roger Moore dubbed her “the thespian rising tide that lifts every other performance around her”.
Davis is ably supported by Ugandan-Briton Sheila Atim, who plays the diviner Amenza, Nanisca’s javelin-throwing lieutenant. The accomplished Lashana Lynch (Izogie) mentors the young SA breakout star of the movie, Thuso Mbedu (Nawi), a fiercely independent and disobedient young girl ably demonstrating both great strength and fragile vulnerability, who is cast out by her family for rejecting the advances of male chauvinistic suitors.
All of the actresses perform their own physically demanding stunts. Nigerian-Briton John Boyega delivers a subtle performance as the polygamous King Ghezo who, unlike King T’Challa in Black Panther, shows human frailties and is far from a comic book superhero.
When Davis first approached Prince-Bythewood with the film script the director broke down and wept, later noting that this was the story her career had prepared her to tell. She was determined to bring a classic of African female heroism to a global audience.
Prince-Bythewood wanted to portray real-life female characters to break down the ubiquitous stereotyping of African characters, and to demonstrate that Africa too had its heroines. As she noted: “We really were these women, we have this innate warrior within us.”
The Woman King is a truly pan-African project, with costumes by Afro-Caribbean Briton Gersha Phillips, and African-Americans Akin McKenzie and Terence Blanchard (supported by SA’s Lebo M), providing production design and soundtrack respectively.
Reviewer Razmig Bedirian praised the film’s “slickly orchestrated violence, epic battle scenes and achingly cool heroes”. The Woman King simultaneously entertains and educates, providing spectacular fight scenes while tackling difficult issues such as the role of African kingdoms in slavery.
It is also timely in an era in which reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade are being vociferously demanded across Africa and its diaspora.
Professor Adekeye Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.
This article first appeared in Business Day on 16 October 2022.