The Woman King crowns the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival – The Florida Star
The powerful women of Agojie were warriors. From the 1600s to the 1800s in the West African kingdom of Dahomey, this all-female military regiment valiantly fought the enemies of their empire.
Moviegoers first saw the legacy of the Dahomey Amazon in the Marvel movie Black Panther, where Dora Milaje’s Special Forces in the fictional nation of Wakanda were modeled after these fighters. So an introduction has already been made.
During a visit to Benin in 2015, actress/producer Maria Bello met the legend of Agojie, sounded out a film and with screenwriter Dana Stevens, crafted a fictional story of real-life women fighters. Other corroborators include filmmaker Gina Prince-Blythewood, who researched women, culture and time, adding her insight; Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis and her production company; and producer Cathy Schulman (Crash). The project is largely a female and POC effort.
In 1823, in a region that is now Benin, General Nanisca (Davis) leads a military regiment that serves at the pleasure of the young King Ghezo (John Boyega). His wives and daughters help protect the beleaguered kingdom of Dahomey from neighboring adversaries like the Oyo Empire, led by murderous Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya) and white Brazilian slavers, commanded by Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin). Their mission also includes the release and release of captured Africans bound for slave ships.
The wise Nanisca is helped by her superior officers, the courageous Izogie (Lashana Lynch, No Time to Die) and the very caring Amenza (Sheila Atim, The Underground Railroad). Girls and women compete to enlist in their army. Nawi (Thuso Mbedu, The Underground Railroad), an abused teenager and orphan, is among the candidates competing for a position in a troupe made up of virgin women who avoid marriage and men. Nanisca watches the rebel wannabe, who doesn’t always follow orders but shows no fear and exhibits leadership qualities. The two clash physically and verbally. Nawi: “They say soldiers are magic. But you look like an old woman to me. Conflicts and war rage around them.
The script defines the premise, time and place. Soldiers, Kings, and Slavers look great on the page, and even grander on a movie screen. Larger than life. The rivalries, betrayals, palace intrigues, romances, mentorship, grudges, fierce battles and subplots are as epic and mythical as those in The Gladiator or Star Wars sagas. The topical theme of the fight against oppression is evident in the war against slavers. The righteous movement to protect others from human trafficking and subjugation is galvanizing. Black history buffs may know that some African tribes were complicit in the slave trade industry. Others maybe not. It can be a learning experience. Nanisca to the King: “Let’s not be an empire that sells our people!
The King’s Abode, Village and Port Towns (shot in Cape Town, South Africa) have a regional and historical feel through production design by Akin McKenzie (When They See Us). Costume designer Gersha Phillips (Star Trek: Discovery) enhances the pageantry with lavish dresses that drape the king and his consorts and adds to the Agojie’s fiery personalities with uniforms that show off their lean physique. All visuals are framed to perfection by cinematographer Polly Morgan. When sequences need more drama, romance, or thrill, Terence Blanchard’s score ups the ante. While editor Terilyn A. Shropshire (When They See Us) scrolls 2h 15m in seconds.
Writing and directing romantic dramas (Love & Basketball) and transitioning into badass superhero movies (The Old Guard) prepared Prince-Blythewood for this feminist fable. Like an artist and a shaman, she creates an atmosphere steeped in culture and history. In addition to the extraordinary stunt choreography, she makes the fight scenes chaotic, balletic and glorious. Under his watch, the palace drama seems regal and dire, and the romance between Nawi and Brazilian Malik (Jordan Bolger) is enchanting. His creativity and versatility are visible everywhere.
Viola Davis is magnetic, intense and powerful as a commanding general. She leads an ensemble that processes their character’s emotions (innocence, anger, fear, romance) and adds human portrayals to the history of slavery, especially for those who fought against it. King: “Sometimes a mouse can knock down an elephant.”
A huge spectacle. A fictional action drama steeped in history. African in nature yet universal in its depiction of greed, suppression and tyranny. A skillful team of female artists have masterfully created a feminist allegory that will excite and inform moviegoers for years to come.
The Woman King premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and won a standing ovation. Among a stellar cast of diverse films and voices, he always rose to the top.