The Woman King is about strength and will, about independence and abolishing slavery, themes that Dana Stevens’ screenplay announces too bluntly at times. “We are the blade of freedom,” Nanisca yells, inspiring her troops into one more battle. But Prince-Bythewood never lets social themes get in the way of crowd-pleasing action. Especially in the film’s last section, the battles are relentless and kinetic, as the camera takes us inside the hand-to-hand combat, with warriors plunging spears into bodies and slicing throats. This is not benign, cartoonish action. There are Agojie deaths, the price of being a soldier.
In 2019, Black Panther star Lupita Nyong’o travelled to Benin for a television documentary about the real Agojie, Warrior Women with Lupita Nyong’o. She admires the Dahomey women’s strength while acknowledging what she calls their crimes of human trafficking, pointing to the need for truth as well as the part movies can play. “The role of fantasy is to create the heroes that we cannot have in the real world, because people are complicated,” she says. The Woman King leans toward fantasy in its heroic moments, but is rooted in truth about war, brutality and freedom. It is a splashy popcorn movie with a social conscience.
The Woman King is released in the US on 16 September.
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