One of the fall’s most anticipated films that I’ve been excited about since I heard of the project was The Woman King. Usually, I can get hooked on films based on actual historical events, especially when it’s a part of history that’s untold until now. Thanks to director Gina Prince-Bythewood, watching her latest film made me wish they taught us about this fearsome group of warriors who were practically not challenging to get behind in history class. Plus, putting the spotlight on strong female characters is my jam when executed right, and will have most men ignore this and not support anything with great representation—sucks for them, lucky for us.
In the 1800s, a group of all-female warriors called the Agojie protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey with skills and fierceness, unlike anything the world has ever seen. Faced with a new threat of enemies, General Nanisca (Viola Davis) trains the next generation of recruits to fight against the Oyo Empire, a foreign enemy that’s determined to destroy their way of life.
Who knows if this would be a fast-moving awards contender based on everything involved, despite the impressive reviews from the Toronto International Film Festival and the trailer. But considering I wasn’t a big fan of the director’s last film, The Old Guard, this gave me exactly what I wanted for a blockbuster that took the combined forces of Gladiator and the Dora Milaje from Black Panther into over two hours worth your attention. Everything in the storytelling about Dahomey and the all-women tribe wasn’t familiar to me, so this is the monthly history lesson I need coming from a side we haven’t seen before. And it’s a drama that hits each mark without taking your eyes off the screen. This understands that it’s not only just slaying down evil men from the Oyo Empire, Prince-Bythewood’s direction and Dana Stevens’ screenplay (based on a story from her and actress Maria Bello) settles us in with these characters, especially the training process for the newest recruits. Everyone a part of this army protects each other in their focused camaraderie with the trauma of war and unity easy to get behind. I wouldn’t consider this a swords and sandals movie, but it belongs perfectly, along with the films Prince-Bythewood took influences on to places we rarely get in Hollywood. Because if I were a woman in the 1800s, I would definitely join them.
Have I ever seen Viola Davis give a bad performance? Not at the top of my head. She always delivers a powerful performance, even when some movies aren’t equally compared. But The Woman King has the Oscar-winning actress in a commanding and powerful role that honestly has me believing she can kick my ass and it would be an honor. This was her take on an active role that no one else could do with her skill set. What I didn’t expect from her character Nanisca is there’s more to her than being this general and learning who she is on the outside, and Davis made it a passage to get behind who she is in war. Probably one of her best performances. But she’s not alone in carrying the film as a stellar ensemble surrounds her to keep everything afloat. Lashana Lynch impressed us all last year, starring opposite Daniel Craig in No Time to Die, but I would suggest her performance as Izogie might be considered for a Best Supporting Actress nomination that also showcases how much I would love to see her lead an action movie. Make it happen, Hollywood! Her character also had the most amount of humor that got me.
The breakout star I hope everyone will talk about is Thuso Mbedu (The Underground Railroad) as Nawi, a young, headstrong woman who refuses to be married to an older gentleman (especially one who’s abusive) and is sent to be trained by the warriors. She’s easily the standout of the film because she becomes the unexpected heart of the story I got attached to. From her point of view, we can see how she can develop the strength to turn into one of the individuals she has always admired. She and Lynch had great chemistry in their scenes together, where Izogie takes Nawi under her wing and becomes a sister figure to her. I also don’t want to forget about mentioning Sheila Atim as Nanisca’s right-hand woman Amenza and John Boyega as the regal King Ghezo, who doesn’t always make the best decisions when looking over Dahomey.
Above everything else, it would be hard not to get enthralled by the action displayed by Prince-Bythewood. The opening nighttime sequence showing the Agojie appearing in the grass to save hostage women from a village of men instantly hooked me. It doesn’t hold back with these battle sequences that were some of the most excellent moves I’ve seen all year. Something about seeing black women kicking ass in a movie set in the past or present gets my blood pumping. You know what I mean? Just know it isn’t wall-to-wall action since it spends time on the characters. Since it’s PG-13, there are instances of someone’s throat getting slit, but it’s never overly violent with its blood. I’m surprised this didn’t go for the R rating. The rest of the technical aspects add to the fire of greatness. From the lush cinematography of the South African location by Polly Morgan, costume design, the sound design was on point whenever their machete blades clank another, and an amazing score to match the well-crafted scenes of action and drama from Terence Blanchard, who I’ll never know it’s him until the credits.
Based on true events, this took liberties with what really happened I didn’t bother reading about before seeing this. Apparently, there’s already controversy surrounding the film. Some might’ve seen this as an inaccurate portrayal of the Dahomey kingdom and its role in the slave trade. However, it was brought up between Ghezo and Nanisca. But besides being a tad too long, where the pace sometimes dips with a predictable narrative, there’s a romantic subplot with Nawi and Portuguese slave trader Malik (Jordan Bolger) that I didn’t think went anywhere since it offered the littlest development. Easily the weakest element of the film most won’t care for when it cuts back to them since more time should’ve given more to the other supporting characters.
Is there potential for this to be a big awards contender? I can see it happening, but it depends if people will go out to the theater and watch it for themselves, with strong word-of-mouth being the reason. Thinking back to the previous September release from the past ten years, Looper (another TriStar Pictures production) missed out and Prisoners got one nomination (how?). Should you go out and see this? Yes, I feel this is the first huge blockbuster we’ve gotten in the past two months where it seems to be the proper kick-off to fall and will make Prince-Bythewood’s name worth paying attention to.
The Woman King is the fierce, old-fashioned historical action film I didn’t think I needed. The tale of the Agojie warriors is packed with exquisite fight choreography and its compelling theme of sisterhood. Viola Davis is fantastic but you should watch out for Lashana Lynch & Thuso Mbedu, respectively. I can’t wait to watch this again n the next few months.
The Woman King is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 135 Minutes. Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing material, thematic content, brief language and partial nudity. Studio: Sony/ TriStar Pictures.
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