Movie Review: “The Woman King” tells the story of Africa’s Amazon warriors

Viola Davis stars in the historical retelling of the Agojie, the all-female army in West Africa.


Sony Pictures Entertainment

“The Woman King” shows how history has fought fire with feminism.

“The Woman King”, released Sep. 2022 and streaming on Netflix as of Feb. 2023, uncovers one of the most underrepresented topics in film: African history. Having grossed nearly $100 million at the box office along with immense success upon its release on Netflix, “The Woman King” is one of the most successful films to ever touch upon African history and culture.

“The Woman King” follows the Kingdom of Dahomey, located in West Africa during the 1800’s. Subject to tyrannical rule from the Oyo Empire, the Dahomey are forced to pay the Oyo with goods to avoid being taken and sold into the European slave trade by them. The audience is then introduced to the Agojie, a squadron of elite, all female warriors that utilize impressive hand-to-hand combat and use of weaponry to protect Dahomey.

The movie revolves around 3 main characters: General Nanisca, portrayed by Viola Davis, who’s strict and powerful leadership of the Agojie established herself as someone not to be messed with. Next, we come across Nawi, an orphan that chooses to join the Agojie rather than be married off by her adoptive father. Finally, King Ghezo, played by John Boyega, leads the Dahomey nation in an extremely progressive direction, with the goal to overthrow the tyranny of the Oyo and the despicable act of selling off their own people to the slave trade once and for all.

The pacing of “The Woman King” was impeccable. Not once during the movie did it feel boring or too rushed; it took its time on the emotional scenes, allowing the characters and their relationships, primarily between General Nanisca and Nawi, develop seamlessly. The action scenes were absolutely incredible, with quick-cut shots that made me feel like I was in every battle.

“The Woman King” thrived yet again in the fields of cinematography and set design. Filmed in Cape Town, South Africa, we were able to experience the beauty of the African savannah, the stunning beaches and vibrant jungles. The Kingdom of Dahomey was masterfully created, with such a realistic look that it felt like I was experiencing the raw culture of 1800’s West Africa.

Feminism was the most obvious and prominent theme in “The Woman King”; the stories of women are ignored all too often in history, heavily favoring androcentrism in history books, novels and film. However, “The Woman King” fights this pattern with a historical account of the Agojie, also known as the Dahomey Amazons, that existed from the 17th to late 19th century. Throughout the film and history, the Agojie proved themselves to be just as, if not more, skilled and lethal warriors as men.

In “The Woman King”, King Ghezo of Dahomey was shown having a moral battle with himself on whether or not to risk the security of the Kingdom on completely ending the internal slave trade. On one hand, being able to sell off his enemies to the slave trade had amassed him an empire worth billions – but on the other hand, he’s selling his fellow West Africans to the brutal reality of slavery.  

The movie’s turn occurs when King Ghezo finally decides to completely stop the slave trade and have palm oil be their primary commodity to sell, and making it the Dahomey’s final mission to burn down the slavery port.

King Ghezo’s moral battle was engaging throughout the movie. His character development from ignorant and indifferent, to righteously inspired made him a genuinely enjoyable character to both watch, and root for.

However, this is where the controversy over “The Woman King” arises. Many historians have criticized the movie for not showing an accurate depiction of the Kingdom of Dahomey and King Ghezo in relation to the slave trade. In reality, he was actually a notorious slave trader that would utilize the Agojie during raids to capture and sell enemies, and continued the practice for the most part until his death in the mid 1800’s. 

Personally, while I don’t believe it to be entirely ethical to label a movie as a “retelling of history” while skewing some information, I don’t see it as particularly harmful in this case. 

For this misrepresentation of history, some historians have denounced the movie as spreading historical misinformation. However, the movie, and many of the people working in it – including Director 

Gina Prince-Bythewood – never claimed it to be a fully accurate depiction, rather relying on the distortion of some history in order to provide adequate entertainment.

“Most of the story is fictionalized. It has to be,” Viola Davis said.

“The Woman King” is a tale of revenge, retribution, and powerful femininity. It never loses your attention, from the masterfully written dialogue to gripping and intense fight scenes. Overall, I rate “The Woman King” a 9/10.