Set in the West African kingdom of Dahomey in 1823, The Woman King is inspired by their legendary all-women Army, the Agojie.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball) uses her considerable skill in telling emotional but incredibly physical stories to give depth to a sweeping action saga. As Nanisca the general of the Agojie, Viola Davis brings a regal presence that is immutable – titles or not.
To star in your first action film at this point in a career is no easy feat, but Davis will go down with the best of this genre’s performances and easily one of the top of her own career. While The Woman King hits all the familiar notes in the vein of nationalist battle movies like Braveheart and Gladiator, grounding the whole exercise in the strength of Black womanhood and kinship is what takes this film to places never before seen (or celebrated).
From the opening ambush scene where the Agojie deftly raid a neighboring village who have kidnapped many of their people, we learn that they are not to be trifled with. The fierce warriors make quick work of the male guards, showing an almost clinical skill in everything from grappling to weaponry. The action is carefully choreographed to maintain the very generous PG-13 rating.
It is more than the many stabbing scenes with a curious lack of blood that remind you how the representation onscreen is a cleaner, more nuanced version of historic events.
The very prosperity that Dahomey enjoys is tied to the slave trade, as selling captives is one of their revenue funds. This and other curiously hurried-over moral gray areas add a bit of saccharine aftertaste for what is otherwise a deeply complex tale.
There are many side plots, almost all engaging and useful for plot movement outside of a lightly shoehorned romance. The main point of entry is Nawi, a defiant ray of light played by The Underground Railroad’s Thuso Mbedu. It is impossible to take your eyes off her as she radiates passion and determinedness, mixed with pride. There is a classic teacher/pupil mirror dynamic between her and Nanisca, but the other leads offer sisterly advice through the warmly funny Izogie (the film’s ‘action veteran’ Lashana Lynch) and spiritual guidance from Amenza (Sheila Atim).
There are no men outside of the eunuchs and their beloved King Ghezo (a charming John Boyega) allowed inside the palace walls at night, so much of the story is told exclusively from the women’s viewpoint. We see tender moments where Nanisca is allowed to confront some of the trauma of her battles, physical and otherwise. Nawi must decide if she can put her desire to follow her own path aside to truly be there in every sense for her sister warriors.
These struggles show a vulnerability that is wonderfully matched by the brutal efficiency of their physical prowess. The greatest lack of depth comes from a glossing over the reason for Dahomey’s then-prosperity – the ongoing slave trade with the Americans and Europeans that led to what is now called Benin. There are some entreaties to address it, but the core of the movie tries to stay on the interweaving stories of the women in between their fight to protect their land and each other from threats on all sides.
The Woman King is a violently beautiful, modern epic that deftly balances combat with drama to create something new in a well-traveled genre. With award-worthy performances, fight scenes, and cinematography, there is nothing at the box office that is more deserving of your ticket.
* * * * *
Produced by Cathy Schulman, Viola Davis,
Julius Tennon, Maria Bello
Screenplay by Dana Stevens
Story by Maria Bello, Dana Stevens
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring Viola Davis Thuso Mbedu Lashana Lynch,
Sheila Atim, John Boyega