Listen to this article here
Let me kick this off with a spoiler alert. If you haven’t seen The Woman King yet, I’m about to run through pieces of what I thought was most powerful about the film. If you’re good with that, keep reading.
Second and most importantly, it is a MUST SEE–especially for the Black community.
In the film, Viola Davis plays the lead role as Nanisca, the general of an all-female military brigade for the powerful, ancient African Kingdom of Dahomey. Sheila Atim plays Amenza, General Nanisca’s ride-or-die, right-hand and Lashana Lynch plays the fearless, Izogie.
The feature is laced with real-life events that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries and the fictional storytelling of director and writer Gina-Prince Bythewood. This badass group of women held it down and defended threats of dishonor and enslavement against their empire.
It’s so many levels to this movie. Aside from the Dahomey army whooping ass and taking names to defend their kingdom, there’s themes of equality, healing, strength, joy, hope and a true display of Black women’s queendom and power.
The Woman King challenges patriarchal norms and traditions that have been coveted since the beginning of time. King Ghezo (played by John Boyega) is the young ruler of Dahomey but does not make a move without the wisdom and counsel of General Nanisca, for whom he has the utmost respect. So much so that when Nanisca defies him to embark on a special mission to save her daughter (I’ll get to that in a second), other soldiers in her army, and Africans on the brink of being sold as slaves, she isn’t punished–she’s rewarded with the highest honor of becoming the Woman King.
It’s also worth noting that the women of Dahomey are treated as equals to men, contrary to what we’ve seen in the past and present.
You also see the conquering of trauma and the parallels of mothering and mentoring while leading.
At a young age, Nanisca was captured by an army of men and raped repeatedly. As a result, she was impregnated which is a no-no for a Dahomey warrior. After escaping the brutality, Nanisca was secretly cared for by her sister warriors that eventually delivered her baby girl.
Nanisca instructed Amenza to give the baby to missionaries but before giving her away, cuts a scar into the baby’s left arm and places a shark tooth inside the wound. Nanisca later discovers that her baby girl, Nawi, has returned to her after being discarded by her adoptive father for refusing to marry and given to the king/military as a tribute. Nawi becomes part of the new generation of Dahomey women warriors, displaying the same fierceness and bravery as her mother.
While Nanisca immediately embraces Nawi (played by Thuso Mbedi), she’s hell-bent on revenge against Oba Ade who’s the leader of the tribe that’s terrorized Dahomey for 20 years. He also raped Nanisca and attempted to sell her daughter and other prisoners of war to slave traders. Nanisca gets her vengeance, peace and freedom for her Dahomey in the final battle scene where she leads a third rebellion against and kills Oba Ade.
Now this is the really dope part.
We all know the treacherous and disgusting history behind the worldwide slave trade but this movie offers an alternative, triumphant ending.
As I mentioned above, the Dahomey brigade was known for defending its kingdom against slave traders and they did exactly that in the movie. The final fight with General Oba Ade took place at a European settlement where enslaved Africans were sold and shipped. Not only did Nanisca and her army take down their enemy, they took down a world enemy by killing the white slavers and colonizers, burning down their settlement and freeing captured Africans. It was a scene kindred to the Nat Turner rebellion.
Applause erupted throughout the theater during that scene. And at that moment I couldn’t help but think about “what if.” What if the entire continent of Africa – particularly the west coast – had the manpower to disrupt the Transatlantic Slave Trade? What if we were never enslaved–what would the world look like today?
Nanisci, Nawi and the Dahomey army return to their kingdom where she is officially crowned and celebrated as the Woman King. Later on, Naninsca and her top generals watch the slave ships sail away from Africa without slaves.
This movie could’ve gone in an entirely different direction and served us trauma porn like a lot of stories chronicling African and African American history. But I think Gina-Prince Bythewood wanted to deliver an overall message of hope and power.
While people of African descent have faced generations of racism, oppression and colonization, we’re reminded that strength, resilience and regality lives in us through our ancestry. We’re reminded that Black women are leaders and warriors and should be respected as such. And in closing, King Ghezo said, “If you want to hold a people in chains, you must first convince them that they’re meant to be bound,” reminding us that we are free if only we choose to break our chains. A word for the past and present.