The Woman King is intended to make people cheer, but it doesn’t ignore the harsh realities of combat.
Viola Davis and other women march through fields as warriors in “The Woman King”.
A historical war film’s excitement is often at odds with its subject. The subject of war is often complex and miserable. Sometimes it lacks heroic purpose. Technicolor epics are a great example of war movies that feature stars winning in the heat of battle. The Woman King by Gina Prince-Bythewood is one of the most ambitious works of the director. It features well-choreographed action performed by the Agojie. This valiant army was made up of women who have defended the African kingdom, Dahomey, for thousands of years. It is intended to make audiences laugh, but it doesn’t ignore the harsh realities of combat.
Prince-Bythewood’s films have always been a mix of the bittersweet and the sweet, no matter what genre. Love & Basketball, her 2000 debut, mixes romantic drama with the structure of a sports movie. She’s since made the somber, period piece The Secret Life of Bees and the sweet, star-studded romance Beyond the Lights. In 2020, her comic-book adaptation The Old Guard was a huge success, making it possible for Netflix to approve a sequel. Although The Old Guard is packed with great action, it’s deliberately pulpy. The Woman King tells a more complex story. Prince-Bythewood is not only skilled at staging spectacular fight scenes, but she is equally interested in tackling subtler political conflicts at work.
The story of The Woman King is written by Dana Stevens and takes place in Dahomey (located today in Benin). It was set during the 1820s. Viola Davis plays General Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie elite fighting group called “the Dahomey amazons” by Europeans. The Agojie were not only revered for their role as warriors in West Africa, but they also played an important political role in their nation. Nanisca, Dahomey’s most important defender, is also an advocate for seismic changes. She argues that her king should stop participating in the Atlantic slave trading–a major source profit.
Like many African leaders of the time, Dahomey’s leaders would sell slaves taken from other tribes to make them bonds. Nanisca urges King Ghezo (John Boyega), to stop selling his own people. This practice was a success and failure for Dahomey throughout the 1800s. Nanisca is confronted by two foes: Oyo, the neighboring empire that seeks to capture Dahomey’s people, and European traders who are the backbone of the slave trade. These characters are riffs of history: Ghezo was a true ruler, but Nanisca, a fictional character, is meant to represent Agojie’s political sway. As with historical retellings, the film alters its context to suit dramatic arcs. The Woman King, unlike other war films, doesn’t ignore moral questions. It brings them to the forefront, making the Agojies’ battle more than just a matter of good against evil.
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Davis’s performance is strong and determined, reminding her of her brilliant lead role in Widows. She plays a character whose calm conceals a lot of hidden pain. Thuso Mbedu is her co-lead. She gave an amazing performance in Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad last summer. Mbedu plays Nawi. She is a recruit to the Agojie and acts as an introduction to their world. Nanisca is disciplined, but Nawi is passionate and impulsive, fighting in a more free-form style, and embarking upon a forbidden love (one that’s unfortunately not fully fleshed out enough).
Lashana Lynch plays the warrior Izogie. Sheila Atim is Sheila Atim’s right-hand woman to Nanisca, Amenza. Sheila Atim gives an empathetic performance. Prince-Bythewood has a knack for creating elaborate worlds with minimal exposition. The script makes The Woman King’s internal politics accessible even though much of it is not said. Boyega’s Ghezo, while prickly and egotistical is unsentimental. Nanisca’s opposition to the slave trade is very emotional. Boyega’s consideration of the matter is clearly economic–and he assigns her to search for other options to help his country.
All of Nanisca’s literal and metaphorical battles against the neighboring kingdoms and Portuguese slavers are dominated by philosophical quandaries. These difficult stakes make Prince-Bythewood’s powerful, violent combat compositions more engaging. If you are looking for a fun, energetic night at the movies, The Woman King will be a great choice. Prince-Bythewood’s greatest achievement is in the way he combines sterling entertainment with a challenging drama text.