Editors note: This story contains multiple spoilers for The Woman King.
The Woman King is the rare story of women on the frontlines of battle. They’re protecting each other, avenging each other, saving each other, and men are mere inconveniences, often just getting in the way. It’s a welcome and engaging reversal in dynamics, but in depicting the emotional journey of General Nanisca (Viola Davis), the titular leader of the all-women Agojie army defending the 19th century West African kingdom of Dahomey, The Woman King is also intimately aware of how rape and sexual violence have always been a devastating tradition of war.
The film stands out in the saturated market of war movies by being honest about the brutality of being a woman, and especially a woman warrior, during brutal, fight-or-die conflict.
Shortly after enemy soldiers—the Oyo—first arrive in Dahomey, we learn that Nanisca is the long-lost birth mother of Nawi, the headstrong new Agojie recruit, whom she became pregnant with after being raped in Oyo captivity. But there’s no graphic scene of Nanisca being raped. Instead, the film infers the violence in brief flashbacks to her time as a prisoner, allowing audiences to fill in the blanks. Davis’s Nanisca is stoic yet heartbreaking as she leads her army through an existential threat while dealing with her own past.
The film, which is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, tackles a dicey subject—how to thoughtfully tell stories about gender-based violence—without self-consciously drawing viewers’ attention to the fact that it’s deviating from arguments that graphic rape scenes are necessary to further these plot lines. Like other recent onscreen stories from women creators that depict the lasting impacts of sexual violence, The Woman King recognizes that the psychic violence and enduring trauma of sexual assault long outlast the assault itself. This, of course, stands in stark contrast with the tendency of male creators to reduce sexual violence to a single moment of shock factor. Nanisca’s struggle to come to terms with what was done to her is the backbone of the movie—turning on its head the dehumanizing trope about the toughness of Black women. The Woman King is an epic story of war and vengeance, and unlike any male-led project we’ve ever seen, it’s anchored in the resiliency of rape survivors.
Stories about gender-based violence are never easy for audiences to consume, nor should they be. But when told right—without deliberately triggering scenes thoughtlessly sprinkled in just to titillate—they’re deeply important, and can even help viewers who are survivors themselves to heal or process their own experiences. In The Woman King, Nanisca’s triumphant duel against the man who raped her—as well as the bond she cultivates with Nawi, which allows her to forgive herself for giving her daughter away—bring the Agojie leader peace and closure. It’s as much a story about trauma and loss as it is one about healing and the power of giving yourself grace.
The Woman King’s approach to sexual violence—in a manner that avoids trauma porn and minimizing the horrors of rape—is similar to how it handles the other brutal reality at the heart of the film: slavery. There’s no white-washing of the devastating violence of the slave trade, and even the movie’s supposed “good guys” need a lot of convincing by the Agojie to stop participating in it. The film proves that excessive, degrading depictions of colonialist violence have never been necessary to craft a powerful movie about race and resistance.
Throughout the movie—which features a number of truly cathartic scenes of Nanisca, Nawi, and other members of the Agojie beating the shit out of slavers—there’s no pandering to the white gaze. It’s an unapologetic story of powerful and deeply human African women warriors. Though the threat of sexual violence remains throughout the film, it’s refreshing and uplifting to see a period piece in which patriarchal oppression isn’t inescapable. The Woman King is the rare Hollywood movie that’s honest about the trauma of sexual violence that isn’t simultaneously rife with violently depressing storytelling.