The Woman King, by Albert W. Vogt III

Honestly, I completely forgot about See How They Run.  I know I saw the trailer for it a couple times, and my interest was piqued.  You will have to forgive a trained historian, though, for getting excited about a film dealing with the past.  That is the case for The Woman King.  I have no idea as to the quality of See How They Run.  I hope it is a good film.  I also try not to stick to one genre or another, so I feel a little bad with giving you another week of historical drama after the dreadful tedium that was Medieval.  I am happy to report, however, that while The Woman King also slows down a little in the middle, it is immensely more watchable.  Again, the title is a little misleading, but at least it got from point A to point B without me wanting divert my attention.

It is West Africa in 1823 when The Woman King begins, and that is historically significant.  I wonder how much your average film goer will realize this, but informing you on these issues is part of my job.  Right away we are introduced to the Agojie.  They are an all-female military unit sworn to protect the ruler of the Dahomey Kingdom, King Ghezo (John Boyega), hence the slightly confusing title.  The leader of the Agojie is General Nanisca (Viola Davis), and she is the main character.  Her and her troops are retaking a village raided by their enemies, the Oyo Empire.  They are successful, and are able to bring back their own captured people, and several of the enemy they intend to sell into slavery (more about this later).  Their triumphant entry into their capital is witnessed by their adoring countrymen, though they are forced to avert their eyes as they pass.  One who cannot take her eyes off them is Nawi (Thosu Mbedu).  She wants to be one of the Agojie, while her father has already contracted for her to marry.  When she rebels against this, her father takes her to the palace to give her to the king, thus beginning her training to be a member of the elite unit.  While she is thrilled to be living her dream, she does not take to the training easily.  What helps is the interest taken in her by one of the more experienced soldiers, Izogie (Lashana Lynch).  Izogie informs the new recruit that in order to continue, Nawi must listen to everything Izogie says.  Meanwhile, Nanisca is rising in the esteem of her king.  One of the main issues is how to deal with the Oyo Empire.  Nanisca urges that they do not pay the tribute they demand, and instead that the Dahomey pursue a policy of peace.  The interlopers each kingdom has to deal with are Portuguese slave traders taking their human cargo to Brazil.  They do so out of the port of Ouidah, which is nominally controlled by the Oyo.  The Dahomey agree to bring their tribute to the Oyo at Ouidah, but it turns out to be a ruse.  The Dahomey goal is to put an end to their slave trade, but for Nanisca it is personal.  One of the Oyo leaders, Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), had raped her while she had been captured as a young warrior.  This is a bigger problem because the Agojie swear an oath of celibacy.  Weird, huh?  Sorry, I had to get my Catholic dig in.  Nanisca attempts to take on Oba on her own, but it nearly results in her being ambushed if not for Nawi’s timely intervention.  When they return to their capital, Nanisca learns that Nawi was an orphan.  Further conversation reveals that Nawi is the child Nanisca bore as a result of her rape, and had given to her close friend Amenza (Sheila Atim) to find a home.  Before handing her baby over, she had inserted a piece of a shark’s tooth into the flesh of the infant Nawi, and digging it back out proves the parentage.  Needless to say, this is all a lot to handle for Nawi, not to mention her attraction to a half Dahomey, half Portuguese man named Malik (Jordan Bolger).  This last bit leads the Dahomey to learn that the Oyo are massing to attack their capital and destroy them.  Instead, Nanisca and the Dahomey army set a trap for their enemies.  In the resulting battle, Izogie and Nawi are captured.  Nanisca wants to go after them, but King Ghezo has ordered that she be named to the title position, which demands that she attend a feast in her honor. Going against her ingrained training, Nanisca defies orders and takes a band of the Agojie to Ouidah to rescue their comrades, particularly Nawi.  Unsurprisingly, the imprisoned Agojie are already planning their escape, but it leads to Izogie being killed in the attempt.  What saves Nawi is Malik.  She is grateful to him, yet when Nanisca arrives, she joins her sisters in burning Ouidah to the ground.  They all return to the Dahomey capital, and King Ghezo honors Nanisca with the promised exultation despite her insubordination.  We end with mother and daughter (though still keeping their relation a secret) joining in a celebratory dance with the rest of the Agojie.

I would not be doing this review of The Woman King justice if the slave trade plot line went unaddressed.  It would be a waste of the courses on the subject I took as well.  I am satisfied with how this subject is handled.  Early on, I was worried.  I mentioned in discussing the plot how the Dahomey collected prisoners to give to the Oyo to eventually sell into slavery.  Unfortunately, this was not an uncommon practice during that awful period in human history where God’s children were turned into cattle (or chattel, which is another word for slavery).  Africans sold each other to European slave traders in exchange for money or weapons, or both.  It should also be noted that by 1823, the British had made the terrible business illegal.  This is important because their navy ruled the seas, and anyone taking human cargo across the Atlantic had to deal with their powerful ships.  I am also happy that the filmmakers did not resort to historical laziness and make the whites Americans.  Yes, in 1823, slavery was legal in the United States.  What rarely gets mentioned anywhere is that Congress had outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808.  This move was not entirely egalitarian as at this time in history the slave population was self-sustaining and growing as the country moved west.  Still, the movie got it right by making their slave traders Portuguese.  By this point in time, most of the places in the Americas where Africans were once transported had abolished slavery, except for the newly freed from Portuguese rule Brazil.  In fact, Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to get rid of the institution, not doing so until 1888.  Hopefully you did not fall asleep somewhere in the middle of this paragraph, or sooner.  I am unapologetic either way as I feel it is important to have this perspective.

You might have also noticed my Catholic dig when discussing the plot of The Woman King.  It is remarkable to me how celibacy in some cultures is celebrated, and in others it is ridiculed.  There is also a pro-life angle to this story.  When Nanisca gave birth, she could have killed her child before it had a chance to truly live.  It seems to this Catholic observer that the abortion issue is such that we tend to think it only a modern problem.  On the contrary, humans have been devising means of stopping unwanted pregnancies for thousands of years.  The Catholic Church has taken a stand against such practices from the beginning.  Long ago, it was not solely a matter of the sanctity of life, but a testament to how dangerous were these practices.  Further, one of the common demanded exceptions to a total abortion ban is cases of rape and incest.  Nawi’s conception is the result of rape.  Despite the awful trauma of her experience and her position in the Agojie, she gave birth anyway and it turned out to be a blessing.  What makes this story even better is how Nanisca and Nawi have to come to terms with this tragedy, and end up being stronger for it.  Life is messy, but God enters into our messes all the same.  He loves us through our difficult times, and the more we cooperate with Him, the better off we are.  This is exemplified in the Agojie sisterhood broadly, which they accomplish without the need of sex, and between Nanisca and Nawi specifically.

If you make to the movies in the coming days, I would recommend seeing The Woman King.  There is a word of caution, though, in regards to the history.  While the Agojie themselves and King Ghezo were quite real, the rest of this is fiction.  I have also seen where other critics have said that the film is soft on the slave trade.  This is why I recommend the film, not because I agree, but because it is more honest than that one critic would suggest.  Thinking about the awful institution can sometimes be overwhelming.  This story is more triumphant, even if the Dahomey kingdom was eventually destroyed by the French before the end of the nineteenth century.

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