At a time when Hollywood seems torn between its promises to rectify historical exclusion and its comfort with existing conservatism, there is, unfairly, much riding on The female king, Gina Prince BythewoodAction film inspired by female warriors from the Kingdom of Dahomey in pre-colonial Benin. It doesn’t help that the movie also had a well documented, an arduous journey from concept to screen, facing rejection and skepticism at every turn. Ahead of its premiere at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, you could feel the nervous buzz among concertgoers as they dutifully shuffled to their assigned seats.
But by the end of the opening sequence, a kinetic sequence during which blades slice through flesh and fists collide with faces, it was clear that The female king would be greeted with a generous welcome. Energetic performance and technical precision unite to glorious effect in Prince-Bythewood’s rousing action flick. It’s lush and top-notch entertainment in many ways.
The female king
Narratively confusing, yet entertaining and technically brilliant.
But as a product of Hollywood, working in the American cinematic lexicon, The female king, with all its good intentions, nonetheless falls into the expected trappings of melodrama and obfuscated history. These flaws will perhaps be the subject of later conversations, when The female king stimulates passionate critical discourse – the type that leads to an enthusiastic push to explore the African continent’s rich pre-colonial history or many current narratives.
Among the film’s strongest assets is a framework of stellar, high-octane turns, especially from Viola Davis. The Oscar-winning actress, known for digging into her characters’ psyches, accesses an impressive level of emotional depth and nuance as Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie.
His character is familiar in its complexity: a ruthless and protective leader plagued by a reflexive defensive attitude. Nanisca likes the women of her regime, whom she calls sisters, but finds it difficult to embrace different ideas. This posture makes his relationship with Agojie’s new recruit, Nawi (a sharp Thuso Mbedu), initially difficult. The two often butt heads as the young fighter repeatedly wonders why certain rules — lifelong celibacy, for example — still exist. Mbedu, the jewel of Barry Jenkins Underground Railroadshines like Nawi, a teenager sent to join the Agojie after her father abandoned plans to marry her off.
The formation of the new cohort of fighters frames the first half of The female king, who takes great pains to paint a detailed portrait of Agojie life in the kingdom of Dahomey. These scenes, in addition to the action sequences, feature the crisp production and costume designs of Akin McKenzie and Gersha Phillips. We see the younger women exercising within the palace’s terracotta walls, doing tricks through the surrounding high meadows, and battling to improve their tactical skills. There is also a palpable sisterly energy between these women, young and old. In Amenza (Sheila Atim), Nanisca has a devoted friend; in Izogie (a marvelous Lashana Lynch), Nawi finds the necessary comfort and confrontations with reality. These montages are supported by Terence Blanchard’s exuberant score.
The meticulous set design and triumphant soundscape combine to create an enchanting, apocryphal tale about protecting and ethically expanding an empire – if such a notion exists. But Dana Stevens’ screenplay, based on the story by Maria Bello, tries to balance several competing and not always stable storylines over the course of two hours. The female king begins with portraiture then surrenders to melodrama in the face of the challenges of translating history to screen and constructing a cohesive geopolitical thread.
The origin of the Agojie is not reliably documented, but scholars suspect their unit was born out of necessity: Dahomey, known for strategic warfare and slave raiding, countered the attrition of young men by recruiting women into the military ranks; any unmarried woman could be enlisted. The female king does not flesh out the origin story, but it does acknowledge and attempt to address the kingdom’s involvement in the enslavement of other Africans.
Taking a pseudo-pan-Africanist turn, the film places Nanisca in the role of a dissident. As the nation begins a war with the neighboring kingdom of Oyo, to which it has paid tribute for decades, General Agojie urges King Ghezo (John Boyega) to think about the future of Dahomey. She argues with him over the immorality of selling their own people to the Portuguese and suggests that the kingdom instead turn to producing palm oil for trade. Ghezo is unconvinced, fearing that the change will lead to the kingdom’s demise. Nanisca begs him not to trust the colonizers.
The female king oscillates between the war with the Oyo, the larger battle against the invasion of the slave trade and the internal drama of the Agojie. Nanisca’s intuition proves correct, but a recurring nightmare also forces her to battle her own demons. The general must consider the weight of his ambitions to become Woman King, a title conferred by Ghezo in the tradition of Dahomey, and his past.
As the war with the Oyo deepens and the fight scenes become more and more intense, The female king sinks its heels into familiar dramatic beats, leaning into unambiguous universal themes of love, community and moralism. For a crowd-pleasing epic – think Brave heart with black women – this combination is more than enough.