Within the walls of the palace at Dahomey, the women of the Agojie live fierce and free. The other people of the kingdom think of them as almost mythical; beings that are unearthly and not to be looked at. But as Nanisca says, there’s an evil growing outside the palace walls. The slave trade — something even King Ghezo takes part in — is a blight in Nanisca’s eyes, even though it has helped make Dahomey very wealthy. Then there are the gun-toting fighters of the Oyo Empire, led by a cruel, slave-trading general, played with real menace by Jimmy Odukoya. Nanisca warns of both the threat of the Oyo Empire and the evils of the slave trade, but her King is hesitant to change old, familiar ways.
In the midst of all this enters Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a 19-year-old handed over to the Agojie after she refuses to marry a man who freely hits her. Nawi is stubborn and brave, and she becomes our real lead character, guiding us through the world of the Agojie. To become one of them, Nawi — along with several other recruits — must endure a rigorous boot camp-style training program, and this takes up the majority of “The Woman King.” We watch as Nawi grows into a real warrior, while still ensuring Nanisca’s displeasure with her strong-headed ways.
Nawi is taken under the wing of Agojie soldier Izogie who guides her through every step and dolls out droll advice. Izogie is played by Lashana Lynch, and in a cast full of heavy-hitters, Lynch is the real stand-out, turning Izogie into a funny, warm, but still deadly presence who loves to swill whiskey and sharpen her nails into claws. Every second she’s on screen is a treat, and I wanted more of her. The comradery that forms between Nawi and Izogie is wonderful, and Mbdeu gives a breakout performance in the process, making us care deeply for Nawi and her story.