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Jeridoo Universe reviews one of the top films coming out of the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) this last week of September 12, 2022: The Woman King. We give you a “CliffNotes®”-styled concise review, consolidating and condensing over 20 critic reviews, so you can see what makes this film special and worthy of watching.
The Woman King world premiered on September 9, 2022, at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) with a cinema opening on September 16. With a box office opening of $18M in the first weekend, it is being critically acclaimed.
While traditional “old-school” beats form the base of this historical action film, fresh elements of unique storytelling percolate to the top of this savory broth, making it a fresh, sweeping action epic.
We take a journey into a lesser-known time in West African history between the 17th and 19th centuries, in the thriving, vibrant kingdom of Dahomey, in an area now known as Benin. Dahomey was one of the strongest nations in Africa.
How It Is Groundbreaking
A story of defiance and resiliency, this film invokes the Hollywood epics of an era of past times. It shines brilliantly in the pairing of dynamic action battles with strong emotional and intimate interaction between the characters. They are beautiful, complex and flawed, but bonded together.
It is the second number one domestic (U.S.) box office movie ever directed by a Black woman, Gina Prince-Blythewood, with an almost entire Black female cast. Aside from African Americans, performers from South Africa and West Africa appeared in the film in cameos, as extras, or in speaking roles, representing a range of ethnicities and personalities. In one of her interviews, the director said she “wanted to build an ensemble that represented the incredible diversity of our diaspora.”
How It Is Controversial
Some criticize and even have called for boycotts of the film in that the director removed certain sordid historical elements and glorified the Agojie and the scriptwriter is white. Cathy Schulman, one of the film producers, disagrees with these critics and felt that they did deal with these controversial elements and felt the story actually pointed attention to the fact that slavery, driven by the pursuit of material wealth at the expense of humans, created all kinds of internal conflict among parties. She feels that this gives a different perception from the side of the African continent at the point of enslavement, not just after their arrival in the Americas.
Inspired by true events, hence part-history and part-fictional “alternative” history, this film sets itself in 1823 during the reign of King Ghezo and focuses on the story of the fierce, 6000+ all-female Agojie warriors, who protect the kingdom of Dahomey.
In The Woman King, Dahomey is in a taut rivalry with the Oyo Empire, not only related to them feeling they are overpaying tribute to the Oyo in crops but also because the Oyo sell captives to slave dealers in exchange for European armaments. Dahomey is given an ultimatum by the Oyo after rescuing a band of captives whom they are preparing to be great warriors: hand over the captive women to be sold into slavery or go to war.
This story is about general Nanisca and the rescued women who become Agojie warriors whom she trains to forsake marriage and motherhood. These women are the bravest of the continent but complex forces of materialism and evil by mostly men but some women, based on the gravitas of history, swirl around them.
Themes of the Film
This film traces the growth paths of these two women in tandem, the warrior formed by her horrific past and the young protégé forging her own new way forward, rejecting the path chosen by her elders, which would be to bend to her husband's desire. Throughout the film, what the two see differently as strengths and shortcomings are dissected. The film addresses the dilemma of one group's freedom at the expense of another's captivity. Themes include abuse, family, feminism, love, loss, and overcoming internal conflicts to give one another strength to face a common adversary.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood is also an accomplished writer and is known for films and TV that showcase the black experience, including Beyond the Lights, Disappearing Acts, Love & Basketball, The Old Guard, and The Secret Lives of Bees. She directed this film with care and beauty.
The Director effectively blends action with emotion and provides a precision of pacing that draws the viewer into the story. She said that she was inspired by older historical epics including Braveheart, Gladiator, and The Last of the Mohicans.
Dana Stevens is known as a screenwriter for the TV show, Reckless, and films including City of Angels, Fatherhood, For Love of the Game, Life or Something Like It, and Safe Haven. Actress Maria Bella has a “Story by” credit.
The producers include Cathy Schulman via Welle Entertainment, Viola Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon via their company JuVee Productions, and Mario Bello via Jack Blue.
In the part two blog article on this film, we will take a deep dive into the story and characters, as well as share our review on the cinematography, music, design, and cast of actors.
James Kellogg is a contributing writer to the Jeridoo blog and is an actor, producer, writer and concept artist for independent films and television.
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