Exploring historical fiction with “The Woman King” 

Published 8:00 am Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Fiercely marching into Tryon Theatre this week is “The Woman King,” a thrilling and commanding film starring the equally commanding Viola Davis, in its titular role. “The Woman King” steps back in time to the 1820s in the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Here a war chieftain, General Nanisca (Viola Davis) is at odds with a rival kingdom, the Oyo Empire, over the Oyo’s ongoing subjugation of opposing tribes, and the subsequent selling of those subjugated tribes into the hands of European transatlantic slave traders. 


Nanisca, at the helm of the Agojie, her band of all female warriors, has been freeing women imprisoned by the Oyo, through brave and brutal acts of violence. Through these attacks and rescues, Nanisca ignites a conflict between the two empires of Dahomey and Oyo, much to the strife of her empire’s sovereign, King Ghezo (the always compelling John Boyega), whose support of Nanisca begins to waver in the face of this empire threatening conflict. 

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As a work of historical fiction, “The Woman King” operates in the same vein as films like “Gladiator” (Scott 2000): wherein a very real historical setting and very real names from history are used to tell the story of characters and machinations that exist solely in the narrative, as an authentic background for a creatively realized story. The fictional narrative contained within this film’s historical setting is bold and exciting, seamlessly pairing grounded moments of character development and dialogue with the choreographed spectacles of immersive and violent battles. The emotional triumph of both the narrative and the fight scenes will surely have audiences cheering for Nanisca and her battle hardened sisters of the Agojie. 


The struggles and conflict of “The Woman King” are founded upon a dark and traumatic period of history, one that is rife with potential for heavy handed commentary. Sidestepping this potential pitfall, “The Woman King” is more complicated and subtle in its portrayal of politicized dynamics than many viewers would expect given the narrative territory. The film’s narrative provides for countless examinations of gender, race, and power dynamics. Amongst these potentially politicized moments the film resists arguing for any inherent dichotomies, leaving the viewer to work through the more difficult, but more rewarding task of situating each dynamic on a non-linear spectrum, of interpreting each character and each instance within an individually nuanced framework. The film’s merit is earned not only through its complexity, but also through its sheer enjoyability. 


“The Woman King” should be a guaranteed good time for any movie goer that enjoys stories of triumph, both emotionally and physically. The excellent cinematography of the numerous fight scenes in the film will surely scratch the itch for any lover of action, just as the film’s dialogue and emotional notes will surely satisfy any viewer in search of cinematic depth. Visit Tryon Theatre and share in the celebration of struggle and ascension!