Screenings 25 November 2022
Review: The Woman King
Brutal, bloody and like nothing you’ve ever seen on screen: When I saw The Woman King at the Hippodrome
By Jack Ferguson
I always enjoy a visit to the Hippodrome. Warm smiles greet me as I step into the cinema hall and grab my popcorn from the snack stall. The lady behind the till tells me her Grandmother used to work in the Hippodrome in the 1940s doing the same job that she does now. If that doesn’t demonstrate loyalty, then I don’t know what does. Generations of the same family devoting themselves to looking after Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema. Stepping inside its front doors is like stepping back in time to one of the last vestiges of Scotland’s bygone cinema-going past. It really is like stepping into Old Hollywood with the curved rows of red velvet seating, the soft, red glow of the lights on the balcony steps, and the mechanical whirring of the screen curtains. I can imagine newsreels being played on the Hippodrome’s impressive screen, people thronging the aisles waiting for a seat to be vacated, everyone standing for the National Anthem. I sink into the plush upholstery of a seat on the balcony. Above me on the ceiling is a midnight sky speckled with stars, the light from the cinema screen reflecting on each star’s surface making them emit a silvery shine. My experience in the Hippodrome is already magical and the movie hasn’t even started yet.
I’m here to watch the The Woman King, which tells the story of the Agojie, a ruthless, terrifying, and battle-hardened army of women warriors who defended the West African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s from European slave traders and rival indigenous enemies. The Agojie famously were the inspiration for the Dora Milaje in Marvel Studio’s Black Panther. Climbing barefoot over spikey acacia thorns puncturing the soles of their feet, stabbing men in the face with their fingers and deflecting bullets with curved blades are only some of the intense violence the Agojie inflict upon themselves and others. This tale is anything but bloodless.
Academy award-winner Viola Davis plays General Nanisca who has the ear of King Ghezo (played by a very charismatic John Boyega) and is the leader of the Agojie and responsible for training the new recruits. She has visions for how the Kingdom of Dahomey could change for the better, but these aspirations bring her into conflict with the King. Although Davis headlines the cast, the story of this film really revolves around Nawi (played by Thuso Mbedu), one of the new recruits. Nawi is a teenage girl who at the start of the film has come of age to marry. Nawi rejects an abusive older man’s offer of marriage by knocking him off his feet. Nawi’s father views his daughter’s act of defiance as an insult and forces her to the palace and gives her as a gift to the King. Nawi is recruited into the Agojie and she sees the skulls of men that the Agojie display on spikes as trophies of war. The female warriors appeal to Nawi’s rebellious nature, her desire to break free from the suffocating gender norms of where she lives. The film follows Nawi’s story and how she becomes more and more ambitious and seeks to prove herself to the elder Agojie’s with whom Nawi always butts heads with due to her impulsive, reckless nature.
There’s an interesting paradox at play in how the Agojie are depicted in this film. On the one hand, the women of the Agojie are liberated from the gender roles that usually suffocate women in their society. If you’re an Agojie, the King’s subjects, men and women, are expected to bow their heads as the warriors pass them and not make eye contact. As an Agojie, you will be revered, your opinions will be respected. On the other hand, although the women warriors have a higher status and respect in society compared to other women in their Kingdom, sexism still prevents the Agojie from living fully independent lives, free from the bondage of men’s desires. The Agojie’s role makes them wives of the King, and although this doesn’t mean that they have to share his bed, it does mean that they live within the palace walls, they cannot marry or have children of their own and the King is the only man allowed within the Palace walls after sundown. The Agojie’s lives are controlled by the seemingly emancipatory position that their status is meant to afford them.
Although the story of The Woman King is quite predictable as it regurgitates plot beats that have been seen in many other movies with its story of a reckless, inexperienced young recruit seeking to prove herself, this film does shine a light on an extremely underrepresented culture and people and its greatest strength is its character development. The relationship between General Nanisca and Nawi becomes more complicated in a very surprising way, which gives more dramatic heft to the plot as it develops, making you really care about Davis’ character and making you wish that both of them survive the film.
As the house lights go up and I begrudgingly rise from the comfy velvet seating, I take one last look at the midnight sky and make my way outside, leaving the bright lights of Old Hollywood behind. I’m struck at how unique an experience just going to the Hippodrome is. I wonder if the Grandmother of the lady who served me my popcorn thought that people would still be spending their Saturday night enjoying a film at the Hippodrome. I want my Great Grandchildren’s generation to enjoy the same experience.
Jack Ferguson is a postgraduate student from Stirling. He's an experienced documentarian, having made film and audio documentaries raising awareness of the unique histories of small businesses and the issues they faced during lockdown. Jack is a huge film buff as he enjoys everything from cynical classic noir movies starring Humphrey Bogart to the epic, romantic and uncompromising John Ford Westerns. He also enjoys contemporary film, especially ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ that pushed the limits of what is possible to depict on film. Here is a link to his website, where you can find examples of his previous documentary work: www.jackfergusonproductions.squarespace.com.