04 Oct 22
Viola Davis, John Boyega, Lashana Lynch, Jayme Lawson,Adrienne Warren, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Thuso Mbedu, Masali Baduza, Sheila Atim
Are you ready to join the battle cry? The Woman King looks set to transform the historical epic as we know it – think Black Panther meets Gladiator. You haven't seen anything quite like it. Oscar-winning sensation Viola Davis leads a superb cast as Nanisca, fearless general of the Agojie, the much-feared, all-female army who must protect King Ghezo (John Boyega) and their kingdom of Dahomey.
Lashana Lynch (No Time To Die, Captain Marvel), firing on all cylinders, adds to the impressive British contingent, as does Peaky Blinders star Jordan Bolger.
Their mission: to prepare for the biggest fight of their lives, to save their West African home from the advance of their enemy neighbour. Adrienne Warren (who plays the captured recruit, Ode) is yet another familiar face, having wowed audiences (and critics) as superstar Tina Turner in the West End stage spectacular, Tina. Needless to say, they are a sight to behold.
The Agojie, one of the first all-female fighting units in the world, were trained not to feel pain. Sharpening their nails into claws and lathering their bodies in slippery palm oil, they were the ultimate fighting machine, the most fearless female warriors. There was a need for them to have such a fearsome reputation.
Throughout the 19th century, Dahomey was the richest nation in the African continent, so an unbeatable army was vital to its survival. Even after the Agojie disbanded, with the fall of Dahomey in 1894 to the French, their legacy lives on today through legend and song.
Davis and her co-stars kick serious butt here, in a tale based on real events. They all had to undergo full-on martial arts (and machete) training for the movie. What you see feels incredibly authentic for a good reason: it is. You'll wonder why we haven't seen this kind of story on screen before.
The Agojie's home of Dahomey was, in fact, way ahead of its time. It had a unique and progressive social structure, where positions of power were divided equally between females and males. Spiritually, they practised an early version of what is now known as voodoo. The last-known living Agojie warrior, who inspired the character of Nawi (played by Thuso Mbedu, best known for her award-winning turn in The Underground Railroad) died more than 40 years ago.
The film was shot in South Africa with a mix of local and international cast and crew. With timely echoes of fierce resistance to repression and colonialism, The Woman King feels remarkably relevant for today's audiences.
The team behind the film managed to recreate the look and feel of what is now the nation of Benin, with its rich, red walls and soils. It's even more impressive, given the team had little to go on in terms of immediate facts, because the writings and drawings from the 19th century were far from accurate or reliable. Everything had to be cross-checked multiple times to get the colours and designs exactly right.
Attention to detail was paramount. All the female warriors wear unique symbols to go with their battle armour, as they would have done in real life. King Ghezo and his wife (Jayme Lawson, last seen in The Batman) are suitably decked out in the finest threads of the time. Even the language they speak, Fongbe, is real (and still used in Benin today).
All in all, this is a spirited, take-no-prisoners romp that is poised to be one hell of a contender come awards season. Ed Gibbs
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