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The Woman King Release Date, Cast, And Plot - What We Know So Far

Movies have the ability to show us stories that we've never seen before, and one upcoming film is shaping up to be groundbreaking both in terms of storytelling and representation: "The Woman King." Released in the United States on September 16, 2022, the historical epic was first announced in 2018 and will take moviegoers to a time period in history that's traditionally been overlooked: the Kingdom of Dahomey, a once-powerful West African nation, and specifically the Agojie, an all-female warrior unit that was active in the 18th and 19th centuries.

TriStar Pictures acquired the rights to "The Woman King," which is being produced by Welle Entertainment, Juvee Productions, Entertainment One, and Jack Blue Productions. When the deal was announced, Julius Tennon of Juvee Productions said in a statement that the movie "has the potential to be a game-changer for women of color everywhere" (per Screen Daily). Meanwhile, Cathay Schulman of Welle Entertainment compared "The Woman King" to the iconic 2018 Marvel blockbuster "Black Panther."

"'Black Panther' just showed us how the power of imagination and lore could reveal a world without gender and racial stereotypes," Schulman told Entertainment Weekly. "'The Woman King' will tell one of history's greatest forgotten stories from the real world in which we live, where an army of African warrior women staved off slavery, colonialism, and inter-tribal warfare to unify a nation."

Here's everything we know about "The Woman King."

Viola Davis stars

Viola Davis headlines "The Woman King" in the role of General Nanisca (via Deadline). As TriStar Pictures president Hannah Minghella commented on the casting, "There's [no one] more extraordinary than Viola Davis."

Davis is an exceptionally well-awarded actress, with four Academy Award nominations under her belt. One of those nominations, for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for "Fences," Davis won. In fact, as of her fourth nomination, Davis has become "the most nominated Black actress in the history of the Academy Awards" (via IndieWire). As you would expect from a four-time Academy Award nominee and one-time Winner, Davis has also racked up a number of other nominations and wins at major awards, including a Primetime Emmy, a Golden Globe, and scores of others. Davis' best on-screen performances outside her award-winning films are perhaps most notably as Amanda Waller in the "Suicide Squad" films and the larger DC universe, the thrillers "Prisoners" and "Widows," and the lead role in "How to Get Away with Murder." She also has appeared in a number of stage productions.

There's no doubt that Davis will make the lead role of General Nanisca a memorable one (fifth Oscar nom, anyone?). Though the role demands both dramatic and action-based acting chops from the actress, she is well-suited to the demand — from heavy dramas like "The Help" and "Doubt" to action flicks like "Widows," Davis has done it all with aplomb.

The rest of the cast

Although Viola Davis alone brings ample acting prowess to "The Woman King," her supporting cast ensures that she's backed by a strong ensemble. The young actress who co-stars as Nawi — a very real historical figure and potentially the last Agojie warrior — is Thuso Mbedu, and she has already built herself a reputation for excellence in "The Underground Railroad" and the South African series "Is'Thunzi." She's already been nominated for international Emmy Awards, and she says she had a blast working alongside actors like Davis and John Boyega (per Vanity Fair).

Lashana Lynch, who Marvel fans will recognize as Maria Rambeau in "Captain Marvel" and Captain Marvel herself in "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," also stars. Another MCU actress, Sheila Atim, who also had a role in "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" as the Master of the Mystic Arts named Sara, also stars as Amenza. Boyega also stars in the role of King Ghezo. Boyega is of course best known for his role as Finn in the "Star Wars" franchise, as well as lauded turns in "Attack the Block," "Detroit," and the "Small Axe" miniseries. The cast is rounded out by stage actress Adrienne Warren, "The Batman" actress Jayme Lawson, and Grammy Award-winning singer Angélique Kidjo.

Their intense training

There is a reason that "The Woman King" has already drawn comparisons, even from its creators, to "Black Panther." One of the standout aspects of the Marvel blockbuster was the Dora Milaje, the all-female, elite commando unit that protects Wakanda and its leaders. Those warrior women were based on real historical counterparts — the Dahomey Agojie. In order to portray the so-called "Dahomey Amazons," Viola Davis and her co-stars, Davis herself told People through a chuckle, "went through hell."

Davis and her co-stars Lashana Lynch, Thuso Mbedu, and Sheila Atim, and even director Gina Prince-Bythewood, went through arduous training to emulate the Agojie's almost inhuman physical conditioning. Davis summarized a typical day's workout: "Three hours of martial arts a day ... and hour and a half of weights, [and] sprinting." The training included all sorts of weapons training too, including swordplay with machetes and spear combat. The stars all said the gym regime and weapons training, as intense as it was, bonded them together, just like the cohesive warrior women team in the film.

Hollywood trainer and nutritionist Gabriela Mclain also tailored each of the cast members' workouts to achieve the absolute maximum results. As she told People, "I actually did DNA testing on ... Viola, Thuso, Lashana, Sheila, and Adrienne ... which helped me pretty much figure out the best way to train." She added, "I wanted them to gain muscle. So they were eating five meals a day, every three hours ... and each of them had a different nutritional plan, which I designed."

The creators

Behind the camera, "The Woman King" has every bit as much talent as it does on screen. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood is an undeniable talent, with a resume to prove it. In addition to three decades of writing and directing for television shows like "Felicity," "The Bernie Mac Show," "Everybody Hates Chris," and "Cloak & Dagger," Prince-Bythewood has also made a splash in the world of cinema. Her feature debut was the cult classic "Love & Basketball," which like many of her films, she both wrote and directed. She also wrote and directed the critically acclaimed period drama "The Secret Life of Bees" and "Beyond the Lights," co-wrote the teen time loop drama "Before I Fall," and made her first action film with Netflix's Charlize Theron comic book adaptation "The Old Guard."

Prince-Bythewood also contributed to the script of "The Woman King," which was primarily written by screenwriter Dana Stevens and based on a story by Stevens and actress and writer Maria Bello (per Vanity Fair). The project actually began thanks to a pitch by Bello to a room full of people at the Skirball Cultural Center's National Women's History Museum in Los Angeles back in 2015 — she laid out the story of this real-life general and asked the crowd if they'd want to see Viola Davis in a role like that. The crowd went nuts.

Bello has had roles in "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," "A History of Violence," "Prisoners," and dozens more films but has also branched out into production and writing over the last decade. Stevens, on the other hand, has spent her entire career in screenwriting, including the upcoming "The Nightingale" adaptation.

The setting

"The Woman King" is based on historical events that took place in and around the former Kingdom of Dahomey, now part of the West-African Republic of Benin. The Kingdom existed for over 300 years, from circa 1600 to 1904, and during that period, it flourished mainly due to its military might and diplomatic relations with various European powers. Thanks in part to its excellence in military conquest and its access to a portion of the Gulf of Guinea known as the Slave Coast, Dahomey was well-positioned to exploit the then-booming slave-trading industry.

Among other reasons, Dahomey is an interesting historical setting because during its tenure, it was the only absolute monarchy in all of Africa. The king — in the film, John Boyega's King Ghezo — held absolute, unchallenged rule within his kingdom, and his decisions were ultimately only subject to influence by his royal court of advisors. During the reigns of Ghezo (also spelled Gezo and Gezu) and his predecessor, King Agaja, Dahomey became a major player in the local slave trade, leading to its political golden age and then ultimately causing its decline when the United Kingdom outlawed the Atlantic Slave Trade.

The plot

The story follows Nanisca, the general of the Agojie — whom the Europeans called the Dahomey Amazons — and her daughter, an ambitious recruit named Nawi, who "together fought enemies who violated their honor, enslaved their people and threatened to destroy everything they've lived for" (via Deadline).

Most likely, Nanisca and Nawi are fictionalized versions of real people. Nanisca was the name of a teenage recruit who joined the Amazons in 1889 (per the Smithsonian Magazine). Nawi was the name of a woman thought to be the last surviving member of the Amazons when she passed away in 1979. She said she had previously fought against the French in 1892, during the Second Franco-Dahomey War. How much inspiration "The Woman King" will take from these particular women remains to be seen, but it is a safe bet from the movie's trailers and synopsis that their war against European colonists will play heavily into the plot. Due to its 19th-century setting, the film might encompass historical events like King Ghezo's shift away from trading slaves to Europeans, or it might chronicle the end of the kingdom in 1892, when the French absorbed the kingdom as a colony.

Interestingly, one of ancient Dahomey's most famous industries was its slave trade. As a kingdom built around warfare, Dahomey soldiers had a steady stream of captives through conquest, many of whom they traded to European slavers. Whether or not this figures into the plot of "The Woman King" is not yet known.

The Woman King and feminism

Over the past few decades, there has been an increasing demand for female-led action films and likewise increasing backlash when any are canceled — "Batgirl" being the most notable recent example. That, along with a few other factors, makes "The Woman King" a relatively important release. Combined with its basis in actual, historical female warriors and its talented, almost-entirely female cast, gives "The Woman King" an above-average potential for female empowerment and a unique feminist tale.

On the feminist nature of the women warriors, Gina Prince-Bythewood told Vanity Fair, "I grew up an athlete. The women around me were athletes. ... Aggression is good. Leave it all out on the floor. And as I got older, it surprised me how few women had the advantage of growing up like that. That innate warrior that I believe we all have is dormant in so many women because it wasn't encouraged or valued."

Likewise, Viola Davis also expounded on her character's importance to Empire, saying, "I think it's very hard to train a group of young women to suck up their vulnerability in order to fight. ... To dig deep and find that warrior spirit that understands you have to fight for something bigger than yourself."  Prince-Bythewood added, "We wanted to show these women as whole women. Their vulnerability was as important as their fierceness, and they had an incredible sisterhood."

The Woman King and Black empowerment

For both Viola Davis and Gina Prince-Bythewood, the importance of "The Woman King" to people of color is just as important as its importance to women, if not more so. Davis, who not only stars as Nanisca but also helped produce the film, told Vanity Fair that the role was "transformative," adding, "There's always a vision you have for your career, but there are very few roles as an actress of color. Dark skin with a wide nose and big lips. I'm just gonna continue to say it. Those stories are extraordinarily limited." She and Prince-Bythewood expressed anxiety and excitement over being able to expose audiences to a part of African history that had until now not been seen on the big screen.

The film, which Davis described to Empire as "an illustration of the insurmountable beauty, strength, vulnerability, femininity, and absolute power of the dark-skinned Black woman," holds additional potential power for telling the previously untold story of a group of real Black women, women who were strong and fearsome enough to draw comparisons to such legendary warriors as the Amazons and the Spartans. On top of that, it potentially holds even greater weight in that it was brought to life by "the most diverse crew" that Prince-Bythewood has "ever worked with," meaning that their success has the potential to even further push the industry to new levels of representation for creatives from underrepresented backgrounds.

The Woman King trailer

In less than two and a half minutes, the official trailer for "The Woman King" makes it clear that the hype surrounding the film is not unfounded and that the promises of Gina Prince-Bythewood, Viola Davis, and others are meant sincerely.

Prince-Bythewood insisted that the real Agojie "didn't need to be embellished or glossy" and that they should look "real and visceral and raw," and the Agojie warriors shown in the trailer are certainly that (via Vanity Fair). The Agojie in "The Woman King" trailer certainly kick butt, and we get glimpses of their training regime and Davis' character's leadership. Spears fly, women leap over each other wielding machetes, and the action seems brutal and grounded.

The trailer showcases more than combat, however. The presence of John Boyega's King Ghezo and Hero Fiennes Tiffin's European Santo Ferreira character suggests the movie may contain deeper, more nuanced political elements, with a war against the Europeans on the horizon. Glimpses of a passionate kiss and Nawi's tutelage hint at genuine, human emotion throughout. But perhaps the most promising information to be gleaned from "The Woman King" trailer is that the movie appears to be as fun as it is fierce and informative.