Moral Dilemmas and Fight Scenes

There’s nothing quite like seeing a movie about women, starring women, made by women, with a cast of so very many women.

Powerful women. Women who care about each other. Women who act in the world.

There were some men on screen, too, but the movie wasn’t about them. Everything about this movie was about the women.

And oh, God, the fight scenes were magnificent.

If you’re hungry for a movie that doesn’t just pass the Bechdel Test, but blows it out of the water, I highly recommend The Woman King.

From the beginning, when you see Viola Davis as Nanisca lead her army of women into battle to all the moments when Lashana Lynch as Izogie is giving guidance to Thuso Mbedu as the young recruit Nawi and all the scenes where Nawi and the others are learning to be warriors, this movie focuses on women, on their abilities, their strengths, their friendships.

I don’t think I knew how hungry I was for a movie like this until I saw it. 

I’m the person who hated Wonder Woman because once it left the island of the Amazons, it was just another exceptional woman fitting into a male world. I get tired of all the superhero movies, where even when you’ve got a tough woman or two, everyone has super powers.

The Woman King is rooted in the real history of Dahomey, where women warriors did, in fact, fight for the king. Maybe part of what makes this movie so powerful is that the actors, writers, and directors knew they were telling the story of real women warriors.

This isn’t a story of magical people; it’s a story of ordinary ones who work hard and train and make sacrifices to do what needs to be done.

It’s a movie that shows us what we can be.

It is, of course, a movie about African history. There are very few white people in this movie and none of them are nice people.

It should not be so unusual to see a movie where almost every person on screen is Black, and most are very dark-skinned. The story is from their point of view, and that is also very rare.

There is much more to the history of Dahomey and the rest of Africa than you will find in this movie. I never rely on movie versions of history, because I’ve seen too many movies that purport to be about something I know well that get it wrong.

But the power and ability of the Agojie, the women warriors of Dahomey, that I’m pretty sure they got right.

Like most women who’ve trained in martial arts, I know women can fight like that. But I’ve almost never seen it on screen in a way that looked so real.

It’s not a perfect movie. There are a couple of subplots I’d have ditched if I was writing the story. And while I didn’t question the need for harsh physical training to turn young women into soldiers, the Aikido part of my brain kept wondering if the harsh attitudes were equally as necessary.

But then, as much as I love great fight scenes, especially when combined with moral dilemmas (which this movie also had), I have spent enough years training, not to mention living, to question a lot of accepted rituals, including that of treating people harshly to make them tough.

Still, I do love the fight scenes. I do look at those battles and while the horror of the deaths is very present, I can still feel the desire to go out and be part of that fight.

And it is glorious to see women fight in a way that takes them seriously as warriors.

Because we can be. And it’s way past time everyone stopped pretending we can’t.


[PS: As someone who continues to be cautious due to the pandemic, I recommend going to a midweek 11 am showing. There might have been ten people in the theater, none of them except the friend I went with seated near me. Streaming at home has its advantages, but there’s nothing quite like a big screen and focusing all of your attention on that story.]


4 thoughts on “Moral Dilemmas and Fight Scenes

  1. It is, in the real sense of the word, awesome. It’s also interesting to see that, outside of the Dahomey citizens, the attitude of both the neighboring tribes and (of course) the Europeans is that women can’t really fight, that it’s disgraceful to be bested by an army of women persists. The Dahomeyans know better (though not every woman wants to be one of the Agojie).

    I note that there has been some controversy (there’s always some controversy) about the film because the Dahomey people were participants in the slave trade. The slave trade features importantly in the film, and a lot of what it’s about is about ending Dahomey’s part in it. See the film before you dismiss it, please.

    1. Movies rarely do history well. And everyone wants to make history simple. It isn’t.

      What movies do well is creating images while telling a small part of a story. And all the women of the world need stories that remind us of both the power we have together and what we are capable of. I am very tired of the stories of exceptional women succeeding in a male world. Those also have some elements of truth (and gloss over some unpleasant history), but they are not the whole story.

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