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Re-introducing Thuso Mbedu, the badass 21st century ‘Agojie’ warrior

Finally getting to watch the screen adaptation of the Agojie women is truly a sight to behold, all thanks to a group of badass women leading the cast of this must-see historical epic, 'The Woman King', led by the imposing Viola Davis (US) and South Africa's own Thuso Mbedu, who's as tough as they come, and could easily pass as the real 21st century Agojie warrior.

The tale about the Dahomean 18th century military is incomplete without mentioning the formidable all-female warriors that contributed to its iconic cultural heritage. Just as it’s impossible to not mention the grueling, near-death training which they had to undergo to become recruits, and likewise formed a crucial part of the Viola Davis led action-packed historical epic, ‘The Woman King‘, the larger than life story of the Agojie women – both on screen and in real life – is truly revolutionary.

Understandably, two-time Emmy nominated South African actress Thuso Mbedu expressed great joy that she was picked to play the all-important role of Nawi, reportedly the last known surviving Agojie with badass battlefield experience.

Forget the funny, delightful and adorable ‘shorty’ you’re bound to meet in person. On screen, as the conspicuous Nawi, not to mention several behind-the-scene footage we’ve seen her share across social media ahead of the October 1st opening weekend of the film, Mbedu looks so comfortable and convincing performing the labour-intensive stunts as she prepares for the battlefield in ‘The Woman King‘ she could easily pass as the 21st century real life Agojie warrior; tough, defiant and ruthless.

While we get to see on-screen the Agojie women not only as the ruthless women who killed for a living, but also in their full humanity as they laughed, loved and cried, the two-time Emmy nominated South African actress Thuso Mbedu says as tough as it’s been preparing – emotionally, physically and mentally – for her role in ‘The Woman King‘, it is nothing compared to what her character was subjected to “as this would have been real life for her,” she says during a special sit-down with select media in Johannesburg, which formed part of her 3-day promotional tour to South Africa.

General Nanisca (played by Viola Davis) is the leader if an all-female warriors known as Agojie | Above & below Images: Sony Pictures.

Mbedu plays the character of Nawi, an orphan who joined the Agojie warriors led by General Nanisca (played by Viola Davis) as they fought to defend their homeland, the West African Kingdom of Dahomey, from invading colonisers in modern-day Benin in 1820.

The Woman King robust pre-production moments

Dahomey is ruled by King Ghezo (played by John Boyega), who enlisted a ferocious platoon of female warriors known as the Agojie as his guard. In order to capture the true spirit of the no-nonsense group as one of its newest, youngest members, Mbedu says part of her audition process required her to go through a rigorous diet and training under the guidance of renowned Hollywood stunt coordinator Danny Hernandez (‘John Wick‘, ‘Avengers: End Games‘).

“Part of my audition required that I take physical and fitness tests, and thankfully our stunt coordinator felt confident with whatever is it that I showcased in that moment. I fully trusted that he will get whatever he needed from me because I saw and liked what he did with the cast of ‘John Wick‘ (2014). Like he knows what he’s doing, and if he felt that there was hope for me, I could lean on that,” she says, adding: “But I did take it upon myself to go for more intense training, and take up additional private sessions as many times as I financially could, to be ready for pre-production fight training. Then when we went into actual training, we did a combination of martial arts, running and strength training.”

The latter, she adds, was the hardest “because I never had any upper body strength before, but I had to build that up and get toned. I think it was during the second training session with our trainer Gabriela Mclain that I really felt it, I actually cried … like, it was hard. It was awful but I still had to it,” she says with a naughty giggle. “I had to push through it you know, and I think that was the day I emailed Gina and said to her ‘as hard as it was, I realised it was nothing compared to what my character would have gone through, as this would have been real life for her. So I was able to take what I was going through emotionally, physically and mentally from training and apply it to my character.”

(for more on our coverage of the vigorous training Mbedu and the cast undertook, click here). 

The Woman King spirit; exemplifying the motif of black women refusing to be silenced

This is who we are. Hear us, we’re alive and kicking and we’re not going to take it anymore

Thuso Mbedu, The Woman King

Exemplifying the motif of black women refusing to be silenced, ‘The Woman King‘ puts left, right and centre the legend of Benin’s fearless female warriors’ spirit, which has been past from century to century.

“Being able to get to tell a story in this amazing way, which was epic in scale brought out something that was already inside every single person on set,” Mbedu tells us.

Looking at how convincing Mbedu is when doing stunts and in the role in itself, and so is the rest of the cast, we asked her if she feels it’s the spirit she possesses hence she felt comfortable taking up this role? As it turns out, tapping into that ‘fight or die’ mindset of a warrior, essentially knowing that as young black women ‘we have the power to control our own narrative’, instead came naturally to her as it’s something that was already in her from her early drama school days.

“When you are coming up as an aspiring actor, you see and believe in worlds that are curated and given to us where everything is possible … but then it’s get to a point where it’s like ‘oh anything is possible but you’, but deep inside, you know that you can be that very thing you set your sight on. So I guess it’s that spirit of knowing that this was always in me, it’s always what I wanted to do. I always wanted to do action, I always wanted to work with Viola Davis. And now being able to get to tell a story in this amazing way, which was epic in scale and though challenging in different ways, it brought out something that was already inside every single person that was on set. From the actors to crew members who built the set to those who made the costumes, to Terence Blanchard who made the soundtrack, or Gina Prince-Bythewood who helped write the script and then directed it. It’s a beautiful thing to witness and has been passed on in that way regardless of what the society has done to try and oppress us mentally. But here we are saying ‘no more, this is who we are, hear us, we’re alive and kicking and we’re not going to take it anymore’.”

Thuso Mbedu addressing a special media sit-down in Johannesburg, which formed part of her promotional tour to South Africa | Image: NOWinSA.

Interestingly, there’re also some not-so-obvious parallels between Mbedu and Nawi, an orphan with a tragic backstory of someone not only longing to belong. Despite her not-so-pleasant upbringing, Nawi proves, however, to be the most gifted young warrior in the group, which she joined after rejecting an arranged marriage.

“For me getting into drama at the age of 16 allowed me to escape a reality which was a litle bit hard, so the character that I choose, I never want to be safe, I never want to play myself. In that sense I always wanted to challenge myself,” Mbedu explains.

‘Challenge’ she has, though not just herself, but also critics and viewers who have praised her performance as spectacular, while the mighty Viola Davis went as far as describing Mbedu’s character in the film as a “building block for the next steps in her career” during a round table discussion with Essence. What with Davis expressing an interest – during an appearance on ‘The View‘ – in having ‘The Underground Railroad‘ star play her “if her story was to be turned into a biopic”.

“Her incredible heartfelt persona makes me love being around her even behind the scenes” Viola Davis on her off-screen chemistry with Thuso Mbedu / Image: Instagram.

“For me Thuso has a translucent talent that you is so thin you can see everything; light comes through in every shade … and that’s how I see her emotional life coming through with this character of Nawi. It’s that immediacy, accessibility that only a few has, which I think it’s the building block of some very incredible actors,” Davis tells Essence, adding that Mbedu’s ‘incredible heartfelt persona’ makes her love being around her even behind the scenes.

‘The Woman King’ is on show at local cinemas (Ster-Kinekor and Nu Metro) country-wide.  

Tankiso Komane
Tankiso Komane
A Tshwane University of Technology journalism graduate, Tankiso Komane has a vast experience in print & broadcast media business and has worked for some of the country’s biggest daily newspapers, including The Sowetan, The Citizen, The Times, and The New Age. Through her varied work as a journalist, notably as a copywriter for SABC1 (On-Air promotions) and as a publicist for Onyx Communications, she has developed an in-depth understanding of the nature of the media business and how to use it for the purpose of exposure. Her expertise in journalism across various disciplines, coupled with a good reputation, has laid the foundation of a new kind "trust in Journalism" as the media ecosystem continues to digitally evolve.
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