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The Woman King in cinemas: Wakanda for Real

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Four years ago, hope was high in Hollywood that the smashing success of Black Panther could spell zero hour for American cinema. More than anything else, Ryan Coogler’s superhero film, starring an all-black cast from every region of the African diaspora, was a cultural phenomenon whose impact stretched far beyond mere box office sales. The battle cry “Wakanda Forever” was in the tradition of “Black is Beautiful”, which briefly circulated as a motto in the US film industry after “Shaft” in the early 1970s. But a feature film still has to pass the box office to make a lasting impression.

Blockbusters about an African kingdom were unthinkable until recently

When the idea for The Woman King was first pitched to actress Viola Davis, there was neither a Black Panther nor an #OscarsSoWhite campaign. The idea of ​​a blockbuster about the Agojie, the proud warriors who defended the West African kingdom of Dahomey (in present-day Benin) in the 19th century and enjoyed a mythical position among the population (and their king), would have been unthinkable just a few years ago .

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The success of “Black Panther” has a lot to do with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King”. The director has just as long a march through the institutions behind her as her film; the Agojie – a pop culture phenomenon for decades – also served as a model for the Dora Milaje, the personal guard of the King of Wakanda in the Marvel comics.

However, Prince-Bythewood did not want to shoot a female superhero film; she has already gained the necessary experience for a fantasy action film of this magnitude with the Netflix production “The Old Guard”. With “The Woman King” there is more at stake than just the box office result anyway. Leading actress Viola Davis, who also acts as a producer, put it very clearly in an interview: “Anyone who doesn’t go to the cinema now is not just making it clear that they don’t want to see this particular film. It’s that he doesn’t want to see these kinds of films.” And that’s despite the fact that “The Woman King” with a budget of a good 50 million dollars – and Davis’ star power – is still relatively inexpensive.

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Right from the opening sequence, Prince-Bythewood’s reference points are made quite bluntly. The Agojie, led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), attack a Mahi village in a nighttime ambush, who kidnapped a group of women from Dahomey to sell to the white colonizers. The attack, which leaves no room for an exposition, is staged furiously, the director wants her film to be understood in a ancestral line with “Braveheart” and “Gladiator”: classic spectacle cinema about a true (fictionalized) story that Hollywood hasn’t listened to for a very long time showed interest.

battle ready. Adjutant Amenza (Sheila Atim), Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and young Nawi (Thuso Mbedu, from right).
© Photo: Sony Pictures

What holds “The Woman King” together despite minor dramaturgical concessions, apart from the action and fight scenes, is the solidarity between the women, who come from all social classes (and other ethnic groups). Dahomey, too, became rich from the slave trade under his newly crowned King Ghezo (John Boyega); a contradiction that Prince-Bythewood and screenwriter Dana Stevens focus on in their historical film.

The patriarchy under the polygamist Ghezo has been waiting for one for a long time kpojito, an equal regent at his side. Nanisca has no ambitions to rule, but she wants to end human trafficking, with which the African rulers also secure the power of the Europeans. Instead, she proposes expanding trade in palm oil.

A production like “The Woman King” needs such a progressive attitude these days. But Prince-Bythewood and Stevens give their story the bare minimum of undertones to describe historic Dahomey as a progressive society, always aware that African rulers also benefited from slavery in America.

The political context in the 1820s, when mainly Portugal traded with Dahomey, is illustrated by a few characters, in addition to Ghezo and Nanisca, the Portuguese human trafficker Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) and his partner Malik (Jordan Bolger), whose mother once sold from Dahomey became. But “The Woman King” has to set other priorities, also as a beacon for future projects.

(In 17 Berlin cinemas)

Gina Prince-Bythewood began her career twenty years ago with the romantic comedy Love And Basketball, now a New Black Cinema classic. She and Davis are companions, with “The Woman King” they prepare the stage for a new generation. For example, the British Sheila Atim in the role of Adjutant Amenza; or Lashana Lynch, already known from the last Bond film, as the whiskey-drinking fighter Izogie, whose secret weapon is her fingernails.

But they are all overshadowed by the South African actress Thuso Mbedu in the role of the “bad daughter” Nawi, who is dropped off in front of the royal palace by her father because she would rather fight than marry. The slender Mbedu (from Barry Jenkins’ “Underground Railroad”) not only acts out her own fight scenes – like all her colleagues – she also lends the film emotional weight when it comes to a standstill. It’s about time “black” Hollywood blockbusters were more than just showcases for talents , as it is called in the industry, are. The Woman King makes a start.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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