Monday With Mildred: “The Woman King”

The Woman King

There have been more than a few really fine movies released in 2022, and I was fortunate to see more than a couple of them. There were also some huge, typical Hollywood features, but I didn’t see any of those. Bodies Bodies Bodies, directed by Halina Reijin is a gorgeous dark comedy update of the slasher film with a killer ending. Everything Everywhere All At Once is a brilliant, bizarre riff on the multiverse hung on an actress who is finally getting the due she has well earned over the decades. Umma is a Korean paranormal thriller set in Kansas starring a famous tv actress and directed by a woman, and Women Talking is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, almost entirely created by women.

I think you may get the drift that there were a lot of movies released in 2022 that were unabashedly woman centered, either as a largely woman created film, or carried by a female actress as the central character. Has there ever been a year with so many of these films? I didn’t even mention Tár, because I haven’t seen it.  What makes me so happy for this year’s roster is that all of these movies are being talked about as great movies, not as oddities to be seen if you run out of men’s movies. Take another look at the kind of movies listed above. Slasher, multiverse, thriller, drama, and below is the war movie. Women’s films are not one note.

Last and not least of the 2022 crop is a film set in 1823 western Africa, in the real life kingdom of Dahomey. Being a rare state – for anywhere, any time in the world – Dahomey fully embraces the duality of humanity and has a female and male everything. Finance minister, diplomatic ambassador, general of the army. The agojie is a fully female military unit that is the terror of west Africa. Made up of “worthless” (aka unmarriageable) outcasts, these women fight together, live together in a female-only enclave of the palace, and love each other as sisters as fiercely as they fight. Young and scrawny Nawi is thrust into their care after she rejects the old man she is sold to by her father. The bulk of the story is seen through her eyes, as she learns how to be a warrior, how to trust in her own strength, and how to trust her sisters to have her back.

Because this is the story of badass warriors, there are a lot of super cool battle scenes. Nearly all of the stunt work is performed by the actresses, which is rarely done in Hollywood, despite it being a tried and true way to enhance the drama. Viola Davis is Nanisca, nearly unrecognizable as the scar faced general who scowls her way through the film. She has a heart, but it’s firmly hidden. Newcomer Thuso Mbedu is Nawi, or Tsetse (little fly) as she is called by my favorite character Izogie (Lashana Lynch). Izogie is Nawi’s mentor and the source of what little humor exists in this otherwise very serious film.

If you have any historical awareness, you will have probably guessed that the slave trade is a large part of the plot. The film does not shy away from an unglamorous gaze at this awful aspect of history. Show this to an anti-CRT friend if you want to shock. One of the things that really excited me was having a eunuch character. They have been immensely important historically, in cultures that separated the sexes (as in harems, for example), and were often more politically powerful than most people realize. Jordan Bolger plays Malik as obviously queer in this film, but also as obviously a political force. I have read some pushback from people who hated that, and I can understand their irritation. But not all eunuchs retained their maleness, so why not have a feminine man in the film?

The director made a point of finding as many dark skinned actors as she could, and not because the film is set in Africa. Historically, it has been more difficult to find work as an African-American actor if their skin was darker. Even back in the 1970s with Ganja & Hess, a big deal was made of the director’s choice to NOT lighten the actors’ skin tone. The darker than normal tones is Gina Prince-Bythewood’s way of bucking the Hollywood machine and I applaud it. As well, there is not a smidgen of romance, though there are hints of relationships including in the trailer. I liked that a lot.

Unfortunately, something they didn’t buck was a trope that plagues black actress roles. Like the kill your queer trope that infuriates me – and a lot of other people – the black woman does not become powerful unless she has been raped. I am embarrassed to report that I had never noticed how prominent this storytelling trope is, but I read a couple of powerful reviews that takes the film to task for it. The movie took a severe downward turn in my appreciation for it after reading those reviews.

Except for that more than unfortunate trope, The Woman King is a movie that should be watched. Most aspects of the film are solid. Just don’t look up the history of the real Dahomey unless you want to be seriously disillusioned.

LINKS:

CFR: In Addition: Huzzah! I love this review from Mildred for, as all of her reviews, they are excellently written and her voice is clear. I really love this review because YES! This has been a great year for women movies and it is good. I am seeing more and more TV and movies have women and men, not just one lone woman amongst many men. I LIKE IT!

Haven’t see this movie yet as well, I am leery of seeing anything with rape on screen. Yet I can purchase this movie now online. So to honor the women and the story, I shall put my money where my mouth is and buy and watch.

Oh and One Quick Note: Dear White People who are triggered by movies where white people are villains because they are slavers, I say: GET. OVER. IT. Please take your trembling privilege of always seeing “white” behavior as pure and good and pull that nonsense from your eyes. Yes, we have done good and great things. We have also done great evil. Yes we can atone for that evil by stopping our own idiot racist BS.

As that dark skinned Jewish guy who roamed the land once said “Go and sin no more.” Let us take that to heart and ACT ON IT!

Sincerely,

-A White Jewish Woman

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