At a time when there has been much discussion about doing away with the “strong Black woman” stereotype that has dehumanized us, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King is a love letter to Black women that celebrates the power of sisterhood and uses our strength to uplift us.
Set in the 19th-century West African Kingdom of Dahomey, now Benin, the film focuses on a fearless group of Black women warriors, the Agojie, who have brought much stability to the kingdom in the aftermath of the horrific European and American slave trade.
The group is helmed by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), who is first seen emerging from a valley of tall grasses clad in cowrie shells and wielding a machete.
Nanisca demands excellence, focus, and unity; no woman is ever left behind under her watch.
Years into her tenure, she has seen firsthand what the slave trade has done to the Dahomey people. Now, the general and her lieutenants, Amenza (Sheila Atim) and Izogie (Lashana Lynch), find themselves training a new generation of warriors to fight for Dahomey against the kingdom of Oyo, whose European alliances, guns, and horses give them an edge. For Nanisca, it has never been a more critical time for the Agojie to move as one.
While many of the Agojie are from Dahomey, other women from across the continent find themselves in Nanisca’s ranks. After being deemed unworthy of marriage, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) arrives at the palace, defiant and curious about the world around her. In contrast, Ode (Adrienne Warren) becomes an Agojie recruit after being captured by the Dahomey, who are at war with her people. Instead of falling victim to her circumstances, Ode chooses to stand up and fight. Though she and Nawi initially have a bit of a rivalry, the pair learn there is strength in their togetherness.
Nawi displayed this during a final test as a trainee.
Though she’s determined to be the first to complete the test, she turns back to aid her friend, Fumbe (Masali Baduza), a more timid recruit who gets stuck in a bush of thorns. Sacrificing her time in the test and allowing the thorns to rip through her flesh for the second time, Nawi only continues once Fumbe is free, earning the quiet respect of Nanisca, Amenza, Izogie, and the king.
Tucked away behind the gates of the king’s (John Boyega) castle, the Agojie remain childless and unattached to focus solely on their work in an all-female utopia. They share meals, secrets, braid hair, laugh, dance, and sing. They also train, learn to wield swords, bleed and fight. We see them being equally feminine and masculine, a duality often not afforded to Black women.
Determined and strong, the Agojie’s womanhood is not constrained to the European ideal of what a woman should be. The docile, thin, delicate (not to mention blonde and blue-eyed) archetype is something Black women have been twisting and confining themselves to fit in since we first encountered the Western world.
Historically, because we do not fit this “idyllic type,” Black women have been demeaned and denied within our communities and the world.
As the legendary activist Malcolm X once said, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.” We are disproportionately more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes, white feminists have routinely erased us from the fight for womens’ rights, our bodies have been fetishized and brutalized, and our contributions have been co-opted. We’ve been left to shoulder the burdens of society, often neglecting ourselves for the well-being of others.
As a result, many people have decried the “masculine” traits they see in Black women, going as far as to say it emasculates men. But to rely solely on a man’s protection (when they are so often unwilling to speak up) negates the power Black women have to protect each other and themselves, as is so stunningly displayed in “The Woman King.”
Speaking to the The Hollywood Reporter about the film and her desire to be seen as feminine, Viola Davis said: “I was a tough kid; I always wanted to kick somebody’s ass… But as I grew into an adult, I embraced the narrative of the world about women. Which is, I’m feeling guilty that I don’t smile enough, I’m not soft enough, I’m not small enough, I’m too aggressive, everybody’s afraid of me. All these adjectives that I’ve been running from all my life that I feel de-feminize me. All of a sudden, I had to call in all of those things that I threw into a wastebasket to create this Nanisca. And somewhere in the middle of that, it just happened: I felt badass.”
And indeed, that feeling came across on screen.
Toward the film’s climax, some of the Agojie are kidnapped to be sold. King Ghezo, determined to put the ugliness of the slave trade behind him, forbids Nanisca from going to retrieve them. She defies him and embarks toward the Dahomey coast on her own. However, because she’s instilled such a strong sense of togetherness in her troops, they are behind her in formation before she is even far from the village, their feet hitting the grassy path with powerful strides. Being brave enough to defy the king and having the force of her Agojie behind her gives Nanisca the strength to bring her stolen sisters home.
Across time and space, Black women have had to be many things to survive. We’ve been labeled “strong” because we have endured. From the Dahomey Kingdom in the 19th century to today, we’ve been warriors against suffering and suppression. We’ve grown stronger as a collective because of the bonds, sisterhoods, and friendships we’ve formed. We’ve not won every fight, but we’ve earned the right to choose how we want to define our strength, whether it’s extending our hands out to our fellow sistas or sharpening a spear to defend ourselves.
The Woman King is in theaters now.