One of the best parts of Black Panther was Danai Gurira and the Dora Milaje, the badass female army of Wakanda. While Ryan Coogler succeeded in bringing a fictional women army to the big screen, Gina Prince-Bythewood did the movie world one better, and showed us a real female army. The Woman King is one of those movies that sells itself, and fortunately has a great director and cast to deliver the goods resulting in spontaneous applause early and often.
The real life Dora Milaje were the Agojie: a female army for the west African kingdom of Dahomey. The Woman King takes place during the 1820s, as new king Ghezo (John Boyega) is about to start his rule. The rival Oyo tribes have been making a lot of deals with the slave trading Europeans, bolstering their armies with horses and guns. Led by the ruthless Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), the Oyo’s power has gotten so great they think it’s the right time to attack Dahomey. General Nanisca (Viola Davis), leader of the Agojie, remains steadfast in her support of Ghezo and Dahomey, and helps the king plan for the nation’s defenses, including training the new set of Agojie conscripts.
I know the easy comparison to The Woman King is Black Panther, but the movie in practice is more of a rousing cross between 300 and any hero’s journey story (Harry Potter, LOTR, etc). Our guide into The Woman King is actually Nawi (a really good Thuso Mbedu). Nawi has refused multiple arranged marriages from her family, which prompts her father to drag her to the palace so she can become a member of the Agojie. From there, we get amazing immersion into a fascinating group of amazing women. After a stellar intro battle showing off their skills, we spend the next hour or so meeting all these soldiers and their customs/training regimen. We learn about Nanisca and her right hand confidant, Amenza (Sheila Atim) as they brilliantly handle training and political activity in Dahomey. But Nawi takes the greatest shine to Izogie (Lashana Lynch), one of the best warriors in the Agojie, playing The Woman King’s version of the wise cracking veteran warrior. The training sequences and Dahomey rituals dazzle the senses, showing the power, prowess, and pupil-popping nature of life in East Africa in the 1820’s.
Now that we’ve been introduced to this incredible fighting regimen, the movie starts brining into the forces they are fighting against. When slave traders and male rapists are on the other side of the battle, it makes the already easy decision of choosing sides in The Woman King even easier; the complicated parts of the story are more for the relationships between members of the Agojie, as we learn more about their histories and motivations to fight, and the ubiquitous generational debates that are happening inside the army. But when the bad guys attack, all that pent up positive energy the movie generates in its first half is given amazing, beautiful release. The closest comparison to the Agojie’s fighting style is Asian martial arts cinema, with the Agojie flying around the screen, invoking terror with either stone faces or screeching battle cries. It’s ballet meets weapons as the Agojie defend their home from these vile forces. Each main character gets at least one or two great moments, and you’ll probably find yourself leaning closer and closer to the screen eagerly awaiting what comes next. I found myself fist pumping and shouting with delight when an evil gets slowly set on fire and burned to a fiery death.
What a year for action movies! Across the globe, I guess everyone was waiting to make their rousing epics to unleash on the moviegoing public. Jackass, Everything Everywhere, Top Gun: Maverick, RRR and now The Woman King? Big thank you’s across the board. And whoever had, Jonny Knoxville, Viola Davis, googly eyes, dance battles, and MiG’s on their 2022 action movie board, congrats you’ve hit your truly insane bingo!