The Woman King Severs The Strong Black Woman Trope — For Good

Photo: Courtesy of TIFF.
This is a spoiler-free review of The Woman King featuring interviews with the cast from the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Strong Black Woman™️. She’s the epitome of resilience and perseverance. She’s an overachiever with an infallible moral compass. Her strength comes from having to overcome unimaginable adversity that would break anyone else — but not her. It is her most defining characteristic. We know this woman well. Not just because she shows up in TV and in film regularly but because many of us have had to be a version of her in order to succeed in our workplaces or to just survive the general bullshit of being Black and a woman in this world. The rejection of this trope has manifested in the push for softness; it’s why “soft Black girl summer” has been trending all season. When strength has been the default, the requirement, and expectation, to be soft is a quiet defiance of a burden we never asked for. For some Black women, to say “that’s enough resiliency for me” can be a revelation, an exhale of freedom from the presumption that our worth is measured in how well we endure oppression, that our only value is our high tolerance for suffering. 
On its surface, The Woman King seems like another addition to the Strong Black Woman™️ canon. The film, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, tells the story of some of the fiercest warriors in history: the Agojie, the real all-women group of soldiers tasked with defending the West African kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) against colonizers, the slave trade and the Oyo, their military rivals. Of course they’re strong. In the opening battle scene of the film, Lashana Lynch’s Izogie takes down her opponent by gouging his eyes out with her nails. With a piercing rallying cry, these warriors race into war with sharpened machetes and no fear. We have never seen Black women be this strong on film (the closest we’ve come is the Dora Milaje in Black Panther, a fictional army that was based on the Agojie). And yet, as physically adept and mentally tough as the Agojie are, they are also full human beings who experience other emotions than fortitude. Their strength is a fact — a basic requirement of their job — not a replacement for a personality. 
Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images.
“Strength has been weaponized against Black women,” Sheila Atim, who plays Amenza, an Agojie lieutenant, told Unbothered on the red carpet of the premiere of The Woman King this past weekend in Toronto. “As much as it is a positive trait to have at times, it’s also something that has been placed upon us to prevent us from having the agency to feel anything else and to be anything else,” she said. “What I love about this film is that it says you can be all of those things within the spectrum of strength. You can also be vulnerable, you can find strength in others. I think that’s really important for us to see because the Strong Black Woman trope is still prevalent out there and I want people to be able to understand that they can feel the full spectrum of what it means to be a human being.” Amenza is General Naniska’s (Viola Davis) right hand, and that full spectrum is on display in the warmth and humor she brings to the warrior. Some of the films most beautiful moments are between Amenza and Naniska, sisters bonded by brutal circumstances and shared grief. You never doubt how strong they are, even in their softest moments. Contrast that tenderness with the competitive camaraderie on the battlefield Amenza shares with Izogie (Atim and Lynch’s chemistry is dazzling), and you’ve got some of the most fully realized and endearing supporting characters ever to grace the big screen. 

Strength has been weaponized against Black women... What I love about this film is that it says you can be all of [the] things within the spectrum of strength. You can also be vulnerable, you can find strength in others.

sheila atim
Naniska, the Agojie’s reserved yet audacious leader, is Viola Davis at her finest. Somehow, even after literally changing the face of television as Annalise Keating and leaving us in awe after multiple Oscar-nominated, snot-cry inducing performances, Davis has managed to outdo herself. The performance is surprising — more subdued and soft than people may have been expecting (and the accent, while slightly unsteady at times, is strong enough to keep up with her heavyweight performance). But Davis’s superpower as an actor is that even when there’s no doubt she’s the most powerful person in the room (or battlefield), she’s also always tapping into a rare relatability in every character. Whether she’s Ma Rainey defiantly demanding a white man get her a Coke, Rose in Fences standing up to her cheating husband, or she’s General Naniska holding court with King Ghezo (John Boyega, who leaps off screen with magnetic regal charisma) attempting to convince him to end Dahomey’s role in the slave trade, Davis manages to make each plight feel universal, like it’s your coke, your cheating husband, and your King who needs counsel. 
“As an audience we look at her, we can identify with her because we see something in her which we see in ourselves,” Davis’s Widows director Steve McQueen said to NPR about her unmatched talent. “Now that doesn't happen with every actor — only the greats… a great actor, can translate humanity, and show us ourselves raw, bare, naked.” What Davis shows us in The Woman King is a portrait of a warrior who is processing trauma while fighting for her kingdom’s freedom and her army’s survival. She’s holding the sisterhood of the Agojie together with sheer will, determination, and sensitive leadership. When Nawi (The Undergound Railroad’s Thuso Mbedu delivering another star-making revelatory performance) shows up as a new Agojie recruit, cast out by her father for being too opinionated and stubborn to land a husband, Naniska is tough on her, but she is also thoughtful and caring, traits that are seemingly antithetical to a warrior of an army that severs enemies’ heads with swiftness and stakes colonizers in the heart without a second thought. “Strong for me means vulnerable,” Davis said on the red carpet, flanked by her husband Julius and her daughter, Genesis. “Strong means to be able to say you crossed a boundary with me and you hurt me and that’s not okay. Or that I can’t move mountains every day. I can’t be the great nurturer, the great giver all the time. I need someone to give to me. I think strong is a word that needs to be redefined. 
Photo: Courtesy of TIFF.
At the premiere, Prince-Bythewood praised Davis for her leadership on set and for setting the tone of the film.“Viola is great. You don’t get to touch greatness very often in your life,” she said to Unbothered. “Beyoncé, Serena, and Viola – those are the three for me.” And with that greatness, Prince-Bythewood said, comes with some invaluable life lessons. “As a director, as an athlete, I’ve been taught my whole life that vulnerability is weakness. This film and Viola taught me that it’s a strength.” 

I think strong is a word that needs to be redefined. 

viola davis
That lesson is apparent in the tender storytelling of The Woman King which is as much an emotional drama about sisterhood and chosen family as it is a popcorn movie designed to elicit cheers and tears from its audience (there were audible sobs, gasps and woos during the TIFF premiere). It succeeds at both — even at times when the film leans into saccharine territory, Prince-Bythewood’s skill as a director saves the film from its clunkier storylines (one romantic subplot involving a biracial man is sure to have Twitter timelines in shambles) and the thrilling choices she makes visually also strengthen the story. Prince-Bythewood set out to deliver a timeless, epic, historical fantasy action adventure — Braveheart with Black women, but better — and she succeeded. There is sure to be heated discourse in the coming weeks over the film’s historical accuracy and how it tackles Dahomey’s involvement in the slave trade (the movie doesn’t shy away from the reality of this history at all), but if you are able to lean into the fact that this is a fantasy based on true events, and not a documentary, The Woman King will win you over as fast as an Agojie can slice the throat of an Oyo. The action is brutal, rousing, and precise — each actor endured grueling months of training — and the battle sequences are some of the best I’ve ever seen.

The Woman King is a triumph because it treats its leading characters with the care, compassion, and complexity so rarely afforded to Black women onscreen but also simply because it’s a big, crowd-pleasing, action-filled, feel-good blockbuster.

The Woman King is a triumph because it treats its leading characters with the care, compassion, and complexity so rarely afforded to Black women onscreen but also simply because it’s a big, crowd-pleasing, action-filled, feel-good blockbuster. I’ve seen the film twice now and each time, I had full body chills watching that many dark-skinned Black African women thrive on screen. “Let me tell you something,” Boyega said grinning on the red carpet, squaring up like a boxer ready to deliver a knockout punch. “On this film, melanin levels had to be over 85%! It’s not just Black women, it's dark-skinned Black women who haven’t had the opportunity to do this [to be] given the main center stage and for me that’s something special,” he said. “I came from a Black woman so for me to see a project that highlights Black women in this way, but also highlights Black women with talent – the actual skills and ability to do this – is something special and I can only say it’s promising for the rest of the industry and the future.”
Boyega’s emphasis of Black women with “skills,” “talent,” and “ability” is key here because when a film like this comes along, people are quick to reduce it to just a notch on the belt of the exhausted representation conversation or a win for “diversity” instead of a piece of art that deserves to be treated – praised or criticized – like any other film. In this case, Prince-Bythewood, Davis, and the rest of the cast and crew of The Woman King pulled off an incredible feat – they look a story six-years in the making (yes, the idea was in the works before Black Panther), a story about dark-skinned Black women warriors that stands in stark contrast to Hollywood’s typical colorist preferences, and delivered a movie that celebrates the very things this industry has told us doesn’t exist in Black women: complexity, depth, beauty and softness.

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