“Fight Like a Girl”
Film Review for Northern Express Published September 24, 2022
Before you ever settle into your seats, and if you’ve seen the tense and surprising trailer beforehand, “The Woman King” is a film experience that you already know will end in an epic and final battle of battles … building in sharp fingernailed-tension until the inevitable. But in this case, the remarkable and complex story being portrayed is based on the true events of the Agojie tribe of female warriors who fought to protect the West African kingdom of Dahomey just two-hundred years ago.
The narrative journey begins in 1823 and is carried beautifully by the centerpiece performance of actress Viola Davis as the reluctant but determined general Nanisca: chosen first to lead, and then to train a new era of fighters to follow behind her as the last chance for her kingdom’s independence as the European slave traders around them exert more and more control.
The too-many-awards-and-nominations-to-count actress and Julliard School alumna is transformed physically and emotionally here in a triumphant survivor story that draws you in with the power of her pain, and the intensity of her resulting convictions. Her remarkable fierceness comes from Nanisca’s cruel understanding of the world’s realities, and her response to the twists of fate that the story throws at her yields powerful results.
Nanisca’s loyalty is to her tribe first, and her King second — played boldly by actor John Boyega as Ghezo, the patient but authoritarian leader who sees Nanisca as an equal, and his most trusted asset in the complicated game of loyalties which pits him against his fellow Africans in order to sustain his peace. “Let us be an empire that loves its people,” she tells him as they trade prisoners to the Spaniards instead of being enslaved themselves.
This slave-trade within the slave-trade is one of the film’s most complex themes — which pushes the characters to unite for a cause they suddenly see as larger than themselves. Nanisca pushes her King to fight the Europeans, and promises to provide him the womanpower to do it, telling all simply, “We fight or we die.”
Much more emotional than a history lesson, the arc of the film is elegantly simple in that you’ve seen this battle film, or war story, before — but probably never like this. That’s because this is a survivor story, a call to arms, and a moral showdown as seen mainly from the perspective of women — who lead, strategize and fight unapologetically for their own lives and freedom (where it can be had).
It offers an entirely new perspective on long uncomfortable history, and brings another true storytelling notch in an increasing Hollywood interest in Afrocentric history and characters (note only the paired release windows of “The Woman King” alongside the anticipated Black Panther follow up in “Wakanda Forever” from Ryan Coogler).
Rated PG-13, there is enough on screen violence depicting tough subjects to be cautious with young viewers, but with context and guidance the story can provoke meaningful conversations and understanding of the complicated themes. The ensemble also includes standouts Lashana Lynch as the rebelious Izogie, a right hand confidante and spiritual leader of the King’s Guard and Thuso Mbedu as the recruit in training Nawu and the future all these women are fighting to protect. Directed with personality and confidence by Gina Maria Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees) and produced and co-created by actress Maria Bello (ER), this unlikely project reinforces the potential and the rewards for allowing us to explore perspectives on screen that have long been hidden from us.