By all relevant measures, The Woman King – directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood – must be considered a widely successful film. The Woman King was not only the #1 USA box office draw on its opening weekend (grossing almost $95 million in theatres worldwide since), it also received high ratings amongst numerous film review outlets (including a 94% FRESH rating on Rotten Tomatoes).
Despite this acclaim, however, the film was an epic fail with respect to recognition from AMPAS (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences). When the 2023 Oscar nominations were announced on January 24th, The Woman King was completely shut-out. Much to the amazement of its international fan base, The Woman King didn’t receive any nominations (not even one – for lead actress Viola Davis – that had been considered a lock the day before).
The Academy has received much backlash for the lack of diversity in its nominations this year. Once again, questions arise: which films does the Academy consider “honorable,” and why should the opinion of AMPAS members even matter any more?
The Woman King is the true story of the powerful female warriors of the Dahomey kingdom in 19th century Africa (known to history as the Agojie). It stars the legendary Viola Davis as Nanisca, the fierce Agojie general. In this historical action-drama film, Nanisca trains a group of incoming young warriors to protect their Dahomey homeland from the Oyo Empire (their domestic enemy).
With the full force of the slave trade during that time, the Agojie must also protect their militarized sisterhood from the foreign clutches of white supremacy that consistently threatens their livelihood. The Woman King is a brilliant presentation of woman-centered and women-driven storytelling that holds space for the voices of Black womanhood to shine.
The Woman King is a brilliant presentation of woman-centered and women-driven storytelling that holds space for the voices of Black womanhood to shine.
The Woman King succeeds in not making a mockery of female soldiers or conforming the Black woman to be consumable to a male audience because of the decisions made behind the camera. The film not only stars Black women, it is directed by a Black woman. In addition, it is produced by women, edited by a woman, shot by a woman, and written by women.
The director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, was extremely intentional in showing the beauty of the Agojie warriors without hypersexualizing or hyper-masculinizing them. The duality of the representation of Black women in the media often includes undesirable (Mammy) or hyper-desirable (Jezebel) stereotypes. The Woman King breaks this stereotypical mold.
Gina Prince-Bythewood carves out a new narrative for the Agojie warriors, particularly as they are women who take a vow of celibacy during a time of forced marriages and the selling of young girls. She refuses to draw the audience’s sole focus to the physique of the Agojie warriors. Nudity is not portrayed within the movie and the warriors are always covered. There is a particular scene where three of the Agojie have been captured and are being held at the barracoon on the shore. These women are topless as they are being washed, and the camera only exposes their bare backs instead of their bare chests. Though breasts and the female form are not inherently sexual, the choice to not showcase nudity emphasizes that stories about Black women can exist without exploiting their physicality.
The film does not contain sexually explicit scenes either, only implied hints through creative filmmaking. When Nanisca experiences flashbacks of her sexual assault, the scene only shows seconds of her foot being restrained to a pole and a jump cut to the menacing face of her attacker. The viewer can infer what happened to Nanisca given the context, without having to be traumatized by witnessing the act.
This highlights the importance of having women in the director’s chair, the writer’s room, and the producer’s office, especially when addressing difficult subjects such as sexual assault.
This highlights the importance of having women in the director’s chair, the writer’s room, and the producer’s office, especially when addressing difficult subjects such as sexual assault. As a Black woman viewer, it was fortifying to see the complexities of the Black woman being treated with such care and delicacy. This also highlights the importance of safe spaces and having places in the media to authentically share Black women’s experiences.
Cultivating a safe space is the overarching theme of the film. The Dahomey Kingdom is an example of the African societal philosophy of gender equality. In one scene, some of the Agojie warriors discuss the “Woman King” and how it was Dahomey tradition for a man and woman to be in positions of royalty for balance and equality. King Ghezo – played by John Boyega – is a prominent figure in the film as he is the strongest advocate for the Agojie, and he relies on them for the safety and advancement of his kingdom.
Though the presence of male input is not needed to affirm the legitimacy of the Agojie warriors, it is important to note that in this African society, women and their insights were seen as valuable. At the end of the film, King Ghezo appoints Nanisca as the “Woman King.” This act reinforces the merit of the Agojie and brings back a political voice for the women of Dahomey.
A good number of the Agojie warriors in the film were women from other tribes who were captured by the Agojie during raids of their villages. When one of the trainees tells one of the captive girls that she did not belong because she was not Dahomey, the character Amenza (who is Nanisca’s right hand), tells the trainee that when they join the Agojie, it does not matter what their background is. They are all sisters and are there for the purpose of serving Dahomey. This small interaction is impactful because it conveys that the Agojie was not just a military unit but a sorority where sisterhood was at the core of its values.
Another prominent figure in the film is Nawi. Nawi is played by South African actress Thuso Mbedu, and she gives an excellent performance with her embodiment of the character. Nawi is a 19-year-old girl who is given to the Agojie by her father because she refuses to get married. When she first joins the Agojie, she is eager, yet naive and hard-headed, and she often challenges authority (including that of Nanisca).
Nawi eventually develops close bonds with her fellow trainees and forms a special relationship with Izogie (one of the Agojie leaders). She rises to be one of the most elite soldiers of the group and is seen as an emerging leader throughout the film. The Agojie gave Nawi structure, discipline, and confidence to flourish and turn into the person she became. Nawi’s story speaks to, again, the value of the Agojie as a space for Black women to be in communion with each other, and to grow and heal through their shared experiences and dedication to bettering themselves and their kingdom.
It is hard to watch The Woman King without mentioning The Black Panther. The fictional Dora-Milaje – the all-female army in Wakanda – is based on real-life Agojie warriors. The Dora-Milaje represents the fantastical idea of an all-female army, whereas the Agojie represents the past iteration of that idea. The significance of this is that spaces for Black women (particularly in the military and in politics), have existed, and are not something that can only exist in a futuristic world. The Woman King restores the hope and virtue of having Black women in power.
The significance of this is that spaces for Black women (particularly in the military and in politics), have existed and are not something that can only exist in a futuristic world.
Sadly, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that The Woman King did not receive any nominations. Whether or not the film deserves any Oscars is another discussion, but it is imperative to understand that the Oscars typically don’t honor Black members of its film community either in front of the camera or behind it. AMPAS in particular – and Hollywood on the whole – are institutions rooted in racism, and the use of a mostly white, mostly-male lens is endemic in their film evaluations. Realistically, The Woman King did not stand a chance at being nominated because it centers on Blackness and sisterhood, qualities that the Academy does not seem to value.
© Courtney Stanley (2/20/23) Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE / DO MORE
Click here to find a screening of The Woman King near you.
Stream The Woman King on Amazon.
Read more about Gina Prince-Bythewood’s feelings regarding the Oscars nominations.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Viola Davis with “Agojie” cast members in The Woman King.
Bottom Photo: Viola Davis on set with director Gina Prince-Bythewood.
Image copyright © 2021 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.**
ABOUT COURTNEY STANLEY
Courtney graduated from Morgan State University in May 2022 with a degree in Screenwriting & Animation, and has been working for Paramount +. She currently makes her home in Baltimore (MD). This is her second post for FF2 Media, and we look forward to more.