“The female king“is equal parts a story of bondage and resilience.
The Viola Davis-film directed on the Agojie, the all-female african army who inspired the Fictional Dora Milaje in Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ focuses on warriors tasked with protecting the people of Dahomey (now Benin) and King Ghezo (played by Jean Boyega).
“The Woman King” also shows facets of the African continent that few Western viewers see in popular culture: royalty, wealth, prosperity and joy – even amid the slave trade.
“Moments of great joy and great tragedy go hand in hand,” says Davis, who plays Agojie’s commanding general Nanisca in the historical epic set in 1823. “And that’s life.”
In the film, the Agojie warriors attempt to free Dahomey from the shackles of their rival nation, the Oyo Empire, which demanded goods from the kingdom to avoid war. They also grapple with the sacrifice of their citizens and POWs to the Atlantic slave trade. It’s a question of survival.
Despite the death hanging over the women, there is laughter, dancing and singing.
“We use dance and movement to heal from sadness, deal with grief and celebrate success,” explains Zoyi Lindiwe Muendane, choreographer of the film. “African movement also comes from expressing struggle and creating ways to maneuver through it.”
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood says, “These are women who lived and died for each other. To imagine you in that environment, I wanted to show the joy and what it must have felt like.”
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Too often, Hollywood stories about people of African descent – especially black women – are rooted in strugglethe cast and creators of “The Woman King” agree.
Screenwriter Dana Stevens wanted to highlight the “femininity” of Agojie women through dance and song, due to the historical “masculinization” of warriors in literature told from the perspective of the colonizers.
Artistic expression helped unite soldiers Agojie Nanisca, Amenza (Sheila Atim) and Izogie (Lashana Lynch) – and young recruit Nawi (Thuso Mbedu). Many songs and dances were used to call their ancestors to protect themselves in battle.
Agojie steps were incorporated “to keep it as authentic as possible”, while styles from Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana made the dances “more appealing to our current generation”, says choreographer Eugene Baloyi. Meanwhile, composer Terence Blanchard “navigated the sound of the film using a traditional orchestra, West African percussion and a choir,” Blanchard said.
These aspects of “The Woman King” bonded the cast and created synchrony, just as it would have with the Agojie.
“It was great for us as actors to be able to have fun. It was really necessary,” Atim said, adding that many happy moments were unscripted.
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A rainy day on set saw an epic competition between a Dahomey soldier and Agojie’s second-in-command, Izogie. The teaser shows the scene where the two challenge each other holding a double-sided spear against their collarbones as they try to bring the other into submission.
As production halted during the downpour, musicians began to sing and drum while others joined in the dancing. “You just felt incredible joy,” Prince-Bythewood said.
Davis notes that the crew sang to stop the rain and it finally did. “It was a divine moment,” she says.
To capitalize on the joy, Prince-Bythewood went ahead with filming the competition between the male soldier and Izogie. “All that jumping and dancing and screaming (you see) was totally improvised,” she says.
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Another unscripted moment came when Grammy-winning Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo sang an Agojie fight song used for the on-set battle. Actresses Adrienne Warren, Lynch and Atim joined in and recorded the moment on their phones, which ended up in the film.
Although there were criticisms of the film’s handling of accents and the way it told the story of Dahomey’s role in the slave trade, one thing the filmmakers indisputably got right was the pride and joy that Africans have in their culture.
Prince-Bythewood had a lot of eyes on the movie before it hit theaters. A friend who was in a sorority told the director that she “felt like ‘watching the original sorority.'”
Contributor: Anika Reed
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