Review: Oscar-winner fights slavery in historic epic ‘The Woman King’

“The Woman King” was loosely based on the real-life Amazon-like female warriors of the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the 19th century who fight for autonomy from their surrounding African tribes and against slavery, at least in Hollywood’s epic retelling of race and history.

"The Woman King" movie poster
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

BAXTER — Slavery is an ugly topic and an often difficult one to see played out on the big screen.

“The Woman King,” a historic epic in theaters now, manages to be entertaining, thought-provoking, action-packed and educational, according to critics and audiences.

Viola Davis stars as a general in the Agojie, the all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey, in the 1820s. She is tasked with training young girls to become the next generation of Amazon-like warriors who remain celibate and devoted to their king.

As with any film that has an undercurrent of political intrigue and jockeying for power, there are threats — imagined, impending and real — from within the kingdom and external forces that come to bear in the form of the burgeoning slave trade by European sailors.

Audiences may be surprised to learn Africans actively participated and profited off the slave trade by selling their captured rivals from warring kingdoms to be used as indentured servants and thought of nothing more than as property.


British actor John Boyega plays King Ghezo, an heir to the throne who is conflicted about his kingdom’s path forward and how best to prosper in a time of encroaching Europeans armed with rifles and more modern equipment that threaten to overpower and overthrow his people.

Moviegoers and fans of the “Star Wars” franchise may recognize the British actor from his breakout role as a Stormtrooper who rebels against his commanding officer and takes part in efforts to resist the evil First Order’s plans for universal domination and subjugation of others.

The kingdom of Dahomey participated in the slave trade while some in his court lobby him to pivot to an agricultural-based economy. Meanwhile, competing African kingdoms surrounding it seem to have little or no moral conflicts about selling others of their own race as slaves.

“My king, the Europeans wish to conquer us. They will not stop until the whole of Africa is theirs. We must fight back, for our people,” Davis tells Boyega.

Boyega replies, “Nanisca, you are asking me to take them to war … war.”

The feature film is refreshing in its depiction of female empowerment, however, as those that make up the Agojie work together under Gen. Nanisca’s direction to defend the kingdom and liberates Dahomean women who were abducted by slavers from the African Oyo Empire.

“The Woman King” was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Dana Stevens, based on a story she wrote with Maria Bello. The film also stars Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim.

Lynch and Atim are no strangers to portraying strong, female characters on the big screen or working together in a major motion picture. Lynch recently played Capt. Marvel and Atim played Sara, one of the mystical defenders in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”


Frank Lee
Frank Lee

“The Woman King” is rated PG-13 and is not excessively violent or gratuitous in its depiction of beatings or battles, especially given the subject matter. Much of the violence or bloodshed takes place off the screen, but parents of young and impressionable children should be advised of it.

“The Woman King” holds a stellar 94% approval rating among critics and a 99% approval rating among audiences at Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregation website for film and television.

The consensus from the audience at “With a fantastic cast and an action-packed story that also manages to be meaningful, ‘The Woman King’ makes it reign.”

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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