'The Woman King' reigns supreme : Pop Culture Happy Hour The new movie The Woman King tells the story of the Agojie, a real-life group of women warriors who protected a West African kingdom in the 1820s. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the film stars Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, and John Boyega – and it mixes bloody battle scenes with discussions of leadership and chosen family.

'The Woman King' reigns supreme

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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

The new movie "The Woman King" tells the story of the Agojie, a real-life group of women warriors who protected a West African kingdom in the 1820s.

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

The film stars Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch and John Boyega. And it mixes bloody battle scenes with discussions of leadership and chosen family. I'm Aisha Harris.

S THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson. Today, we are talking about "The Woman King" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Joining Aisha and me today is podcast producer, and film and culture critic, Cate Young. Hey, Cate.

CATE YOUNG: Hi. Absolutely thrilled to be back.

S THOMPSON: Great to have you. Also with us, Morning Edition producer Marc Rivers. Welcome back, Marc.

MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: Good to be here, guys. Thank you.

S THOMPSON: Great to have everyone here. So "The Woman King" is set in West Africa, in 1823, in what was the Kingdom of Dahomey. That's the southern part of what's now Benin. Dahomey's enemy was the powerful and well-armed rival empire of Oyo. And their battles had especially high stakes due to their proximity to the Atlantic slave trade. Prisoners of war and other captives were routinely sold into slavery or conscripted into the armies that captured them. Dahomey's fighting forces included a well-trained and well-armed army of women called the Agojie.

In "The Woman King," General Nanisca, played by Viola Davis, presides over a group of fighters. They include Amenza, played by Sheila Atim, Izogie, played by Lashana Lynch, and a new teenage trainee named Nawi, played by Thuso Mbedu. John Boyega plays King Ghezo, Hero Fiennes Tiffin plays a young slave trader, and Jordan Bolger plays his biracial friend Malik, whose mother is of Dahomey ancestry. Malik is kind of a love interest, but this movie is far more interested in fighting than romance. "The Woman King" is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. It's in theaters today. Cate Young, I'm going to start with you. What did you think of "The Woman King?"

YOUNG: My entire review of the film is that Lashana Lynch needs to marry me.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: I am obsessed with her. She's incredible in this movie. And if she's not absolutely everywhere after this is released wide, I'm going to riot. She's a star, and they need to give her everything. I think, in general, I really, really enjoyed this movie. If you thought that the Dora Milaje were the best part of "Black Panther," this is the film for you. If the Dora Milaje were real, and the movie was about them, this is what you'd get.

But it's somehow even better than that because the story is really infused with this really true sense of, not just like base girl power, but like a really grounded sense of the difficulties that women have to face in the world, and how they navigate those difficulties by banding together. And I realized when I sat down in the screening that I had somehow forgotten to actually watch the trailer. So I went in pretty blind. And I didn't really know what it was about, other than that, you know, Viola Davis was a woman king. And I ended up getting a much richer and more engaging story than I expected.

I really thought that it was going to be a film centered around Viola. And it turns out that, honestly, I think she's the least exciting part of the film. And I think that is probably a conscious choice that she made in order to let her co-stars shine, because she is acting as a producer for this film. To me, it's all of the supporting characters that really make this movie sing. They are exciting. They're all distinct characters. They all have these backstories that are fleshed out and lived in, and I was just absolutely entranced with it. I loved it so much more than I thought I would. I cried several times. It surprised me more than I expected to, to just see a bunch of dark-skinned Black women, like, being full of life and verve and power, and having the respect and authority to do as they wished in the world.

S THOMPSON: Nice. Thank you, Cate. Marc Rivers, what do you think?

RIVERS: Yeah, Cate, you know, I like that you talked about letting the supporting players shine here. You know, I think that's a staple of Gina Prince-Bythewood's movies. You know, like the ensemble here really carries this film, like Lashana Lynch, also Sheila Atim, also, you know, Thuso Mbedu. Like, these are just such great faces. You know, the faces alone can tell stories.

I think there are a couple of subplots in this movie that are kind of superfluous. Because when you have actors like this who can kind of tell stories within how they carry themselves, within like just looking at how they occupy a space, you don't need a lot of bells and whistles. You know, like, they're doing a lot of the work. I think this movie is such a crowd pleaser. I mean, at my screening, you know, there are oohs and ahs and mmm hmm, I know that's right, sis...

YOUNG: (Laughter).

RIVERS: ...Throughout the movie. And that can make an experience, you know. I do think there is probably a darker, tougher, more complicated version of this story that they could have told. Something that really kind of dug into the kind of social and gender hierarchies of the tribes. And the violence here, it's not cruel or ugly. A lot of the violence is very cathartic. There are kind of clear moral lines. The people who get got deserve to get got, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Well, for the most part.

RIVERS: For the most part. And the people who didn't deserve it, it's very clear who didn't deserve it, right? I'm really hoping that this is a success for Bythewood, because I find this movie to be kind of representative of the way that she's had to soldier on in the industry. You know, every movie that she's made, whether it's "Love And Basketball," "Beyond The Lights," or even "The Old Guard," which was her previous film that just got released to Netflix, she's had to really fight to get these stories told. She's often been one of the only Black women, if not the only Black woman in these rooms, and I just hope it kind of begets just more stories like this, those kind of darker and more epic and more complicated stories. But I think this is a great start, I think.

S THOMPSON: Nice. Thank you, Marc. Aisha, what did you think?

HARRIS: Well, throughout the publicity campaign of this film, it's been marketed and presented in various profiles and interviews as being like "Gladiator" and like "Braveheart." And those are the types of movies that are decidedly not for me.

YOUNG: Yeah (laughter).

HARRIS: I've never made it all the way through either "Braveheart" or "Gladiator." When I see it on TV, I'm like, oh, God, I don't know. I'm not a period piece, war action movie person. But this movie, it hit me. I was like, oh, I'm in for this ride. And it really does make a difference that these were Black women being bad.

YOUNG: Yeah.

HARRIS: You know, insert the curse word here, that I want to use, but I can't use because it's NPR. I was just so taken by, yes, seeing Viola in this role, a role we've never really seen her be able to take on. Because - and she's said this, like she's acknowledged it throughout her career, she's acknowledged, I'm a dark-skinned Black woman. I have a wide nose. I have big lips. They weren't trying to cast me in this stuff 20 years ago, and now I'm here. And I love seeing that. But I also just love the fact that this feels, in a way, it does feel like a return to movies like "Braveheart" and "Gladiator" because of - I'm sure there's CGI involved, but the CGI is not, like, overpowering. It's not overwhelming.

And, you know, I've talked about this a lot on this show, how I'm, like - I'm happy that certain movies, certain action movies are going back to sort of the more practical effects and the more sort of visceral feeling. And I feel like the fight scenes here, they felt like I was there. And there were moments where I was, like, peering through my fingers 'cause I was like, I don't want to see this. Like, ahh (ph). You feel it coming.

RIVERS: This movie, it really pushes the PG-13 rating. Like, I was - when I looked back and I saw that it was PG-13, I was like, wow. Like...

HARRIS: Yeah.

RIVERS: It's right on the cusp of, like, an R rating.

YOUNG: There is one character who has her nails sharpened so that she can dig out the eyes of her enemies (laughter). I mean, it's pretty intense.

HARRIS: Yeah, it's very intense. And I also appreciate that this film - I mean, Marc, you were talking about there being a darker version of this. But I do think that it kind of walks the line in a way that I felt was appropriate, at least for the audience it's trying to get. It doesn't shy away from very heavy subjects, like rape, and like the idea of Black people being involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which I think, especially Black folks, that's something we don't want to necessarily confront in a way or talk about. But it is something that happened. And I think that the way it talks about these things, really, it brings this added level of social commentary that, like, I wouldn't necessarily expect from a movie that's also meant to be, like, a crowd pleaser, a big-budget action flick, where you're, like, rooting and cheering on whenever something really, really exciting happens.

For me, it balanced the more dark and more realistic aspects of this history with, like, big blockbuster where I could tell, every beat, what was going to happen, but, like, I didn't care because these actors all made it, like, so exciting to watch.

S THOMPSON: Yeah, I had, really, the same reaction that all three of you did. I'm really surprised that none of you have made the central point that I took away from this movie, which is that it rules.

(LAUGHTER)

S THOMPSON: Like, it just rules.

HARRIS: Yeah.

S THOMPSON: Like, I came home, and it was like, oh, what did you think of the movie? I don't know. It ruled.

(LAUGHTER)

S THOMPSON: And I didn't necessarily have more nuanced - a more...

RIVERS: We were all circling that word, Stephen. You just got there first. You got there.

(LAUGHTER)

S THOMPSON: You know, I'm not necessarily, like, a big "Braveheart" or "Gladiator" guy myself, but this is, like, you know, a kickass war epic full of really viscerally staged battle scenes, some serious dramatic beats. Is it completely 100% historically accurate? Of course not.

HARRIS: Yeah.

S THOMPSON: Are the central characters all extremely heavily fictionalized? Absolutely. Yet it still felt basically true to history. As several of you've noted, it spends real time delving into who these characters are and, like, giving characters arcs that fit into a larger story. It's just an extremely well-crafted movie. It's a $50 million movie that looks like a $150 million movie, which is a credit to Gina Prince-Bythewood, who's had to do more with less her entire career, and still really manages to make a movie that feels like an awards-caliber war epic on a relative shoestring. I mean, $50 million ain't nothing, but it doesn't go that far in filmmaking. Lashana Lynch - I really think we're starting to get into where we're getting to talk about, you know...

YOUNG: Starting her Oscar campaign.

S THOMPSON: Yeah, starting - talking about award season. She just jumps off the screen every time she's on. Her character's so compelling and so full of life. It's not necessarily a funny movie, but she, for example, brings a certain lightness. Her presence brings a certain lightness. There's a playfulness to that performance that really jumps out at you. Yes, I think we all have minor quibbles here and there with this movie. There are several characters - let's say the ones who appear to have been plucked directly off of the covers of romance novels.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Yes.

HARRIS: Oh, my god, OK. So Malik - as soon as I saw Malik, there's a scene where they're by a waterfall, and he's - he looks like he - romance novel or the cast of "Hamilton," one of the two.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: And, like, his hair is long. He's, like - a billowing white shirt. And then you see the ever-so-cut V.

RIVERS: He's just, like, sculptedly (ph) chiseled, you know?

HARRIS: Sculpted V right above his pelvis. I'm like, oh, my God.

(LAUGHTER)

S THOMPSON: I mean, it's so interesting, right? Like, Cate, you mentioned - you know, you made the comparison to "Black Panther" and the story of the women in "Black Panther." I mean, those women are in part inspired by the Agojie, right? Like, did you go into this movie with a sense of who the Agojie were? Did you know this story going in, and did it matter?

YOUNG: No. I mean, like I said, I didn't even remember to watch the trailer before I went to the screening.

S THOMPSON: (Laughter).

YOUNG: So I really didn't know anything about the story other than that it was a Viola Davis vehicle. I mean, this is the exact kind of movie that I would absolutely skip if it wasn't full of people that I already love to see on screen. For me, I was really just interested in kind of seeing, like, well, what new thing is Gina up to now? Like, I'm interested in it because I like her as a director. I like these actresses. And I want to see what they're up to now. But I didn't have any context for this film.

And so I ended up getting this really extensive, broad story about characters that I'd never heard of, a part of history that I was not familiar with, and they were able to kind of plug me right in where I was, like, right there with them. I understood the political dimensions that they were battling against and the social dimensions that they were battling against. I understood the dynamics of the relationships between these characters and the stakes of what their choices are for them in that time. And it was all immediately legible to me, despite the fact that I came in, basically, completely blind.

HARRIS: Yeah. There's also just, like - there's a scene where Nawi, the protagonist character, has to, like - well, all of them, a bunch of the trainees have to go through this thicket of thorns. And it's like, ugh, I could feel every sort of thorn cutting into their side. It was just - it felt real. And I also just feel like, yes, it's an action movie, but it's also pretty funny at times...

YOUNG: It's very funny.

HARRIS: ...Especially John Boyega, who as the king is just giving...

YOUNG: (Laughter) He's incredible in this movie.

HARRIS: OK, he's giving some Eddie Murphy in "Coming To America" vibes but, like, in the best way possible.

YOUNG: (Laughter).

HARRIS: Like, when we first see him, he's kind of greeting his harem of women, and he says, like, my love, my love, but every time, he says it differently to each woman. And he's just, like, my love, my love.

YOUNG: (Laughter).

HARRIS: And it's just, like, clearly, he's having fun with it. And he also just understands, like, it's kind of ridiculous that this guy has all these women. Like, I just really loved those, like, little flourishes of humor there.

RIVERS: Finally, Boyega gets to be fabulous in a movie.

S THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: Can I just say really quickly that I think, like, for me, I'm curious to see how this does, because I think even more than "Black Panther," the success of this is kind of, like, to me will be a bigger deal just because "Black Panther" already kind of had a built-in audience. It had several other movies ahead of it to sort of prep us for it. And it was based off of an existing property. Whereas this is like - it's based on a history, but a history most people don't know. So, like, for me, a lot seems to be riding on this. And I hope that this means that we will get more original stories that are about Black people in these types of situations and in these eras.

S THOMPSON: Well, I think we can all agree y'all should see "The Woman King." We want to know what you think. Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh or tweet us at @pchh. Up next, what is making us happy this week?

Now it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, what is making us happy this week? Cate Young, what's making you happy this week?

YOUNG: Well, I have two things making me happy this week. The first is that I finally have my first big girl apartment. I have my own place now. It is very dark and very hot, but that's what AC's for. But I love it. I'm having a lot of fun decorating. I finally understand why my mother spent, you know, days on end watching HGTV because that's all I want to do now. The second thing that's making me happy is the incomparable Sheryl Lee Ralph and her Emmy win last night. I absolutely sobbed watching her speech. She is such a talent. She is one of those journeyman actresses who has been around for decades, putting in the work, doing incredible things in Black cinema, not being recognized for her work. And to see her get up on that stage and essentially be, like, so moved by the moment...

(SOUNDBITE OF 74TH PRIMETIME EMMY AWARDS)

SHERYL LEE RALPH: (Singing) I'm an endangered species.

(CHEERING)

RALPH: (Singing) But I sing no victim's song.

YOUNG: To really see her, like, get her moment in the sun was just incredible. I loved it so much.

S THOMPSON: All right. Thank you, Cate Young. Marc Rivers, what's making you happy this week?

RIVERS: For every situation that makes you want to write off the Emmys completely, like "The Underground Railroad" not winning a single Emmy, to circle back to Thuso Mbedu and Sheila Atim's (ph) last big project, is a moment like Kenan and Kel reuniting at the Emmys.

(SOUNDBITE OF 74TH PRIMETIME EMMY AWARDS)

KENAN THOMPSON: Excuse me, sir. Can we get you a drink or something?

KEL MITCHELL: You know what? Can I get a Good Burger?

K THOMPSON: Oh, my God.

RIVERS: For a young person who kind of grew up in the late '90s and early '00s, "Kenan & Kel," the Nickelodeon show was a foundational show. And you always kind of heard of rumors about, like, the kind of potential rifts in their friendship over the years. Like, you know, were they talking? Were they not talking? So to see like such a just unfiltered, joyful moment between them just felt so pure and joyful. And I'm kind of - I'm hoping this might be, like, a sign of them maybe working together in the future. I don't need a "Good Burger 2," just - it could be anything.

HARRIS: Yeah. No one needs a "Good Burger 2."

S THOMPSON: Thank you, Marc Rivers. Aisha Harris, what's making you happy this week?

HARRIS: Well, you all kind of stole my happies (ph), but it's fine. I have a backup. So, of course, "The Little Mermaid" trailer for the new Disney, quote-unquote, "live action remake" - I don't know how much is actually going to be live action, but whatever - that dropped a week ago. And it stars Halle Bailey, who is a Black performer. And it's great to see Ariel being played in that role. I have some quibbles with the trailer because it's super dark, and you can't really see anything. And the special effects looks terrible.

S THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: But I will say in the wake of that dropping, a old clip from earlier this summer started circulating from a online personality creator. He goes by @iamtonytweets on Twitter. And it's basically him donning various wigs to play both Ariel and Ursula in the scene of "Poor Unfortunate Souls." But he remixes it. It just shows the creativity that Black people have, especially when taking things that used to be super white and that we grew up with and, like, making it really, really fun and putting in our own spin on it. And I think you just need to hear a little clip of this because it's so fantastic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IAMTONYTWEETS: I'm sick of swimming.

You know your daddy Triton doesn't like me.

I think it's because I'm an octopus. It's very racist.

(Rapping) Lookee (ph) here, baby. Wanna be on top? Wanna walk with the fit you ain't got? Girl. My name Ursula, name gotta ring. Baby, if you want it all, all you gotta do is sing.

HARRIS: (Laughter) So, yeah. So this is what's making me happy. I doubt that the movie's going to be as good as this, you know, minute-long tweet but who cares?

S THOMPSON: Nice. Thank you, Aisha Harris. So, speaking of "The Woman King," the closing credits have a song that features a guest vocal from Angelique Kidjo, the great legend. And speaking of Angelique Kidjo, she is the subject of our 1,000th Tiny Desk Concert, which we published this week. But speaking of the Tiny Desk Concerts, I had a discovery myself watching one of a wonderful singer and guitarist named Madison Cunningham, who put out an album last week called "Revealer." It is so, so, so beautiful. And she is such a subtly kickass guitarist. And this record contains just one of the most beautiful, tear-jerking ballads I've heard in a really, really long time called "Life According To "Raechel."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE ACCORDING TO RAECHEL")

MADISON CUNNINGHAM: (Singing) It's not if, darling, it's when. There's something left unsaid. Were your eyes green...

S THOMPSON: So what's making me happy is milestones and discoveries and this terrific Madison Cunningham record. That is what is making me happy this week. If you want links for what we recommended, including more recommendations, sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. That brings us to the end of our show. Marc Rivers, Cate Young, Aisha Harris, thanks so much to all of you for being here.

YOUNG: Thanks so much for having me.

RIVERS: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you.

S THOMPSON: This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Stephen Thompson. And we will see you all next week.

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