Viola Davis is known as a character actor who strives to bring psychological depth to the roles she plays. Who would have imagined that all Viola really wanted to do was get a cool aircut, dress up in battle gear, and go around waving a huge sword? This is pretty much what she does in The Woman King – a title that should appeal to those who like to mix up their pronouns.
Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon, are also producers of the film, and have spruiked it at every opportunity. The effort seems to be working, as a glance at Rotten Tomatoes this morning revealed The Woman King scores a 94% approval rating from the critics, and 99% approval from the audience.
Not for the first time, I find myself completely at odds with these ratings, although not with the box office. There’s an ongoing debate as to whether the movie is holding up well or bombing. Obviously, it’s in Sony’s interest to put a positive spin on the numbers, but pundits have pointed out that receipts so far would not be considered a success by the usual studio standards.
Quite simply, when a film is so heavily promoted and ticks so many identity-based boxes it is guaranteed to garner an avalanche of positive publicity. The first audiences are right on-side and ready to respond enthusiastically, hence the 99% approval rating. The critics feel morally obliged to support the project and any pretence of objectivity goes out the window.
There are, of course, lots of bad reasons for avoiding The Woman King – including simple racism or sexism, but it’s not news that a film about black female warriors in 19th century Africa, may not have universal appeal. The true believers rush in early and sing the film’s praises, which helps boost attendances among the middle ground. The nay-sayers will simply stay away.
Another issue which has turned off some viewers is historical accuracy, but more of that later.
The story is set in the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1820s, a time still dominated by the Atlantic slave trade. Dahomey is defended by a unique band of fierce, all-female warriors known as the Agojie, whom we meet as they stage a raid on a slavers’ camp. It’s a brutal and bloody affair, with the women showing no mercy to their enemies.
The leader of the Agojie is General Nanisca (Viola Davis), a battle-hardened veteran who is treated with great respect by the country’s supreme ruler, King Ghezo (John Boyega). The dream they share is to free Dahomey from its bondage to the larger Oyo Empire, which demands exorbitant tribute and takes slaves at will.
A new addition to the Agojie’s ranks is a teenage girl named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who is handed over to the order after refusing to marry an older man. Nawi is the rebellious type, but eager to succeed. She strikes up a friendship with one of Nanisca’s lieutenants, Izogie (Lashana Lynch), and shows she has the right stuff.
Meanwhile, the Oyo are planning a huge raid that will subjugate Dahomey once and for all. Nawi learns about it from a man named Malik (Jason Bolger), who has come to the country with his friend, the Portuguese slave trader Santo (Hero Fiennes Tiffin). Malik has mixed loyalties, being is half-Portugeuse and half-Dahomean. He falls for Nawi, who is torn between his masculine attractions and her virgin loyalty to the Agojie.
There is a great battle and a few rather predictable revelations I can’t discuss without giving away the plot. You can probably figure out already whether the story ends in tragedy or triumph.
In brief, we have the tale of an all-female army of African warriors who fight against an evil, male-dominated enemy enmeshed in the slave trade. It’s a story of female solidarity, and Indigenous resistance to the colonial powers that set one African nation against another. If this stirs your political instincts, you may get a kick out of this film. If you are looking for an intelligent story, sharp dialogue, or brilliant cinematography, it’s a different matter.
For all its progressive political credentials, The Woman King is little more than a mawkish melodrama punctuated by battle scenes and occasional singing and dancing (thank-you, Angélique Kidjo!). The characters are cut from cardboard and speak in that stilted style Hollywood has used since time immemorial to distinguish ‘natives’. Whether a character is calling comeone “bwana” or “kemosabe”, he or she inevitably sounds like the speaking clock. This clunking delivery is intended to signify that, even though it sounds like English, everyone is actually speaking in a foreign language.
When it comes to mortal combat, director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, has taken a leaf from Mel Gibson’s imaginary book of carnage and bloodshed, but she never captures the sheer visceral power of a film such as Hacksaw Ridge (2016) or Apocalypto (2006). As for plot development, it proceeds in sluggish fashion between battles, with every development being laboriously spelt out. The love interest between Nawi and Malik is an implausible, confused insert in this girls-own saga.
The Agojie seem such an unlikely phenomenon that one inevitably wants to look them up. I’ve learnt long ago that “inspired by real historical events” means in Hollywood-speak: “A grain of truth in a bed of fiction and fantasy”. The story of these African Amazons is no exception.
While the Agojie of Dahomey did exist, they did not develop an antipathy to slavery until the British abolished the trade at home and got serious about trying to stamp it out abroad. At that stage they began to argue it made more sense to trade palm oil rather than people, but even then, this seems to have been a business decision, not a moral imperative. It’s one of the ironies of this story that palm oil – an industry that has generated an ecological catastrophe – is viewed as the positive alternative to the slave trade.
During the time of The Woman King the Agojie were raiding other tribes, capturing slaves to be sold to the traders. The righteous antipathy that Nanisca and her comrades express for slavery, has no basis in historical fact. Instead, it is a sentimental concoction meant to appeal to American audiences, for whom slavery and its legacy of systemic racism remain hot-button issues. The filmmakers’ dilemma was that the black women warriors they wished to portray in a heroic light were participants and enablers in the trade.
In Hollywood, when an unstoppable opportunity for a feature runs up against an immovable historical fact, the solution is to create alternative facts. This pernicious process is now standard behaviour in American politics and spreading all over the world (any word from Brazil?), but the movies were there first.
It would be unrealistic to expect filmmakers not to rerrange history for the sake of a good story, but to turn slavers into vehement opponents of the slave trade, on grounds of race and gender, is a bit like making a movie about heroic SS officers appalled by the treatment of the Jews, or caring conquistadores concerned for the future of the Incas. Perhaps the best point of comparison might be D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as patriotic heroes. Once we start to impose contemporary moral values on history the distortions are inevitable. To imagine they are justified is a matter for a filmmaker’s conscience or the studio marketing department.
The Woman King
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
Written by Dana Stevens, after a story by Maria Bello
Starring: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, ashana Lynch, Shelia Atim, John Boyega, Jordan Bolger, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Masali Baduza, Jimmy Odukoya, Jayme Lawson
USA, rated M, 135 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 5 November, 2022