Woman King, epic story of all-woman African military unit

Actress Viola Davis plays Nanisca in the film 'The Woman King'. PHOTO | POOL

The Woman King is a bold, brilliant, and breath-taking film that combines historical fact with ferocious action-adventure to create an epic story in the same vein as a Gladiator, Spartacus or Ben Hur classic.

Viola Davis (best known for her powerful performances in Fences and How to Get Away With Murder) plays Nanisca, the hardcore General of the Agojie all- female army that defended their kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) from the early 17th to early 20th centuries.

The film is set in 1823 when the king of Dahomey, Ghezo (John Boyega) is at a crossroads in his career as leader of the Agojie people. Should he continue collaborating with the Oyo Empire and getting rich off of the sale of African slaves (a position his scheming wife supports) or should he split with Oyo and transform his slave trading economy into one built on indigenous crops like palm wine and palm oil.

That’s the position of his loyal General Nanisca, but it’s a hard sell, especially as Dahomey’s wealth has been built on the backs of fellow Africans captured specifically to sell to both white and African slave traders.

Kenya’s own Lupita Nyong’o didn’t buy it, which is why ostensibly she turned down an offer to be included in the cast. Yet some have questioned Lupita’s decision to bow out of the opportunity to work with the award-winning Viola Davis.

Some critics contend she simply didn’t want to be part of the backlash that was sure to ensue once the film came out. And indeed, there has been quite a big reaction to the film coming from several corners.

There are those uncomfortable with seeing strong, aggressive women fighting and conquering men like the wicked Oyo chief, who coincidentally was the man who raped Nanisca 20 years before the 19 year-old Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) was born, abandoned, and adopted by a man who tried to sell her for the dowry she’d bring if he’d successfully sold her to a rich old man.

There were other critics who generally felt uncomfortable highlighting the African slave trade since the film clearly points to the fact that Africans can no longer simply blame Europeans for the trade in African slaves. In the last few years, there’s increasing evidence that there was a ruling class among Africans and the rich elite primarily got fat off the selling of their own people.

Either way, the film may have its own shortcomings. But the truth is that Dahomey did have an all-female military unit trained internally to be the toughest, bad-ass, fighters around.

One reason why the so-called Amazons did in fact exist is because so many men were grabbed and sent on tightly-packed slave ships to the Americas via a harsh Middle Passage.

It was the paucity of virile young men that largely led King Gheza’s training women to be as tough as any male fighter. General Nanisca was in charge of the training camp that the rebellious young Nawi found her way into. The camp was practically like a nunnery in that the women had to swear to give up any aspiration to wed, have children, or disobey the Agojie code of conduct.

Nawi was good on the first two counts. She wanted no part in wedlock or childbearing. But obedience to rule of law wasn’t in her DNA. She nearly got thrown out of the camp more than once for her misconduct. But at one critical moment, her singular style enabled her to be in the right place at the right time to save Nanisca’s life.

That was a turning point in the film. Since it looked like the women were near defeat. Their leader was almost finished but for that split-second decision by Nawi to shoot a man who was ostensibly her father as well as her mother’s rapist. Prior to that moment, we had never seen a touch of tenderness on Nanisca’s part. But after that, we hear her story and see a sudden change of heart as she had already realised that Nawi was in fact her child.

The Woman King is a remarkable film. However, the fact that it came out just days before Wakanda Forever was to be released also had a part in the film’s being overshadowed by the sequel to Black Panther.

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