Greetings again from the darkness. I’m a little late on this one as I try to catch up with viewings for year-end lists and voting. From the opening scene, director Gina Prince-Bythewood (LOVE AND BASKETBALL, 2000) establishes the skill and intimidation of the Agojie, an elite force of female soldiers in the Dahomey Kingdom of West Africa. The year is 1823 and the warriors are led by their General, Nanisca (Oscar winner Viola Davis, FENCES, 2016), a fierce leader who also has the ear (figuratively speaking) of Ghezo (John Boyega), the new king.
The film is based on historical facts, but also takes a great deal of dramatic license in its story telling. Actress Maria Bello developed the story, and the screenplay was written by Dana Stevens (FOR LOVE OF THE GAME, 1999). Dahomey’s riches come from its slave trade, and its way of life is being threatened by it’s enemy, the Oyo Empire … for whom Nanisca holds a personal hatred. Nanisca recommends transitioning to the sale of palm oil, while Shante (Jayme Lawson, TILL, 2022), the power-hungry wife of the King, promotes further expanding their successful slave trade.
Nanisca loses many soldiers in that initial battle and must quickly train a new group of recruits. One of these is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu, “The Underground Railroad”), an obstinate young girl who rebels against her father’s wishes and finds herself ‘gifted’ to the kingdom. Izogie (an excellent Lashana Lynch, NO TIME TO DIE, 2021) takes on the role of training and mentoring Nawi, and the two form a strong bond. The trading of slaves plays a part in this version of the story, yet somehow it feels minimized in the interest of playing to the mainstream and ensuring Ms. Davis’s character appears heroic and appealing throughout … even with the twist, that won’t really surprise anyone.
What I find most interesting is that Viola Davis is garnering much attention for another Best Actress Oscar nomination, yet it’s Thuso Mbedu whom I would claim is the lead in the film, and certainly a more interesting character. The King’s Guard (the Agojie) are remarkably fit and the battle scenes are well orchestrated … and Nanisca has one of the best fight/attack yells of all time. The film is large in scale and likely owes a bit of gratitude to the success of the Black Panther movies for the enhanced budget. In the end, we can certainly appreciate Ms. Davis’s strong General, though it’s Ms. Mbedu who looks to be the one to watch in the coming years.