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One of the most striking aspects of 2018 Black Panther was the Dora Milaje, the all-female army that served King T’Challa in Wakanda. What many may not know is that this group was inspired by an actual group of female warriors from the Kingdom of Dahomey, which was located in what is now known as the West African nation of Benin for over 300 years old.

This real story – or a fictionalized version of it – comes to life in the new film The female king. The titular character is General Nanisca (Viola Davis), who leads a group called the Agojie, who protect Dahomey and King Ghezo (John Boyega). Nanisca is one of the main contenders to become the Kpojito, aka Woman King, of Dahomey, an honorary title bestowed by the king on a woman who would be considered his equal.

Much of the film is devoted to Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a girl handed over to the Agojie by her father after refusing an arranged marriage. Nawi and other would-be new soldiers undergo intense training to live up to the standards of the group, which must contend with rival groups in the region like the Oyo Empire, as well as protect Dahomey from the ever-growing threat of the slave traders.

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Dana Stevens, the film is most successful when it deals with the Agojie rather than Dahomey’s internal and external politics. The Agojie are full of interesting characters, including Nanisca, Nawi, Izogie (Lashana Lynch), Amenza (Sheila Atim), and Ode (Adrienne Warren). The film thrives when it shows their conversations, combat skills, and camaraderie.

Things get bogged down a bit as the story develops. It is mentioned that, as progressive for their time as they were, Dahomey also aided and abetted the slave trade, even selling people from Oyo and elsewhere. The thorny part of this revelation is never really explored, which becomes even more noticeable when two slave traders – Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) and Malik Diallo (Jordan Bolger) – become a big part of the story. Malik, the son of a slave and a slave trader, is even introduced as a possible romantic interest for Nawi, a totally unnecessary subplot.

The battle scenes are on par with any good recent action movie, well directed by Prince-Blythewood and Fight Choreographer Jenel Stevens. As is becoming increasingly common, especially with female-focused films, the team is made up of many women, including Davis, Maria Bello (who also has story credit), and Cathy Schulman as producers. . The attention to the proper portrayal of all the actresses throughout the film is clear and appreciated.

Davis is as impressive as actors come, but this role gives him something completely different. She is the picture of strength in both her demeanor and her physique, embodying the role of a general in every way imaginable. The rest of Agojie are also fantastic, especially Mbedu, Lynch and Atim, with their chemistry that makes them instantly likable. The men are fine, although Boyega is a less than convincing king.

The female king is further proof that, given the opportunity, women can perform as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts in stereotypically masculine activities. The actual historical basis of this particular story brings even more relief to this reality.

The female king hits theaters September 16.

Viola Davis in The Woman King.

Photo by Ilze Kitshoff

Viola Davis in The Woman King.

About James Almanza

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