Action Drama

Women Warriors: A TIFF Review of ‘The Woman King’

September 11, 2022Ben MK

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Dora Milaje represent Wakanda's first and last line of defense for — an elite, all-female fighting force that would lay down their lives for their king and their country. What many moviegoers and cinephiles might not realize, however, is that this group of fictional women warriors actually have real-life counterparts. And in The Woman King, director Gina Prince-Bythewood sets out to tell their tale, in this action-oriented story about the female warriors known as the Agojie, and their trailblazing and stalwart leader, Nanisca (Viola Davis).

The year is 1823, and West Africa is in turmoil. European slave traders have arrived and, with the help of the Oyo tribe's ruthless new General (Jimmy Odukoya), have begun separating men, women and children from their families by selling them into the slavery. Meanwhile, in the kingdom of Dahomey, King Ghezo (John Boyega) and his most trusted advisors have been deliberating on the situation. And when diplomatic relations aren't enough, Ghezo turns to Nanisca, his most trusted advisor of all. However, the battle to come isn't the only matter on Nanisca's mind, for she has also been revisited by some of the ghosts from her past — namely, a teenage orphan named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who has recently begun training with the Agojie to become one of them and who bears a mark on her shoulder that is instantly recognizable to Nanisca. Could Nawi be her long-lost daughter, whom she gave up when she was a baby? And how will the outnumbered Agojie manage to defeat the Oyo's army, who have been recruiting warriors from other tribes to form a formidable opposition?

Throw in strong supporting turns from Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim, as well as a subplot involving Nawi's relationship with a European man named Malik (Jordan Bolger), whose mother was from Dahomey, and you have the makings of a compelling historical drama that's just as gripping as any action spectacle the MCU can produce. It's The Woman King's messages about slavery and female empowerment that proves the most powerful, though. And while it's taken far too long for the Agojie's story to be brought to mainstream audiences, the lessons to be taken away from the film are just as relevant today as they were two centuries ago.

The Woman King screens under the Gala Presentations programme at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 15 min.

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