Strength, Power and Purpose in The Woman King

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Starring: Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch, Thuso Mbedu, Sheila Atim, John Boyega Running Time: 135 minutes

Learning that the Dora Milaje in Marvel’s Black Panther were inspired by real women warriors, the Agojie of the West African kingdom of Dahomey, was one motivation for director Gina Prince-Bythewood to work on The Woman King. The enthusiasm and emotional connection that audiences had with the Marvel film was strong enough as it was, so it makes sense that she, along with writers Dana Stevens and Maria Bello, would want to thread an element of that to real life figures, working with actresses across the diaspora to embody actual African history. 

Another motivation was to work on the kind of historical epic that we see less often on our screens of late, with Gladiator, Last of the Mohicans and Braveheart cited as influences. Again, taking this kind of story and bringing it to a part of the world where Hollywood is rarely willing to tell it is an understandable aim. Thankfully, The Woman King isn’t all just good intentions, bringing the craft and class to back it up. 

The matter of the film’s historical accuracy has been subject to debate, some of it in good faith, some of it, as all things are now, decidedly not. Dahomey’s history with selling slaves to Europe was not as clean and clear as the film depicts, and Nanisca, the inspiring and insightful Agojie leader played by Viola Davis, was not herself an actual existing figure in the way that the warriors, king and kingdom around her story were. Audiences will have their own individual balking point about ‘accuracy’, as they have had for every film based on fact that has ever been made. What is more immediately relevant might be called emotional accuracy. It is immediately apparent what the creative collaborators of The Woman King are trying to do and why, the space they are trying to create, the ideas, questions and sentiments they aim to provoke. When Nanisca fights for her people, when she tells those in power that they should sell palm oil and not people, when she and the Agojie burn and break oppressors, that speaks in service of a history, and of a present, and a future as well. Can Prince-Bythewood and Viola Davis tell a story about a woman you’d follow into battle? Where the answer is yes, what follows might be less semantic debate and more conductive deliberation. 

The Woman King shows Nanisca and her comrades struggling in battle with the larger nation of the Oyo Empire, struggling with seeing their people sold off, and Nanisca, with her own personal struggles spiraling off from the slave trade, drawing a line in the sand. Concurrently, we see her butting heads with new recruit Nawi, our point of view character and entry way to the Agojie way of life, both stubborn and strong-willed, both visionary and inspirational to those around them, connected in a way that speaks to the wider bond of all the warriors in the film. 

Prince-Bythewood has always excelled at telling tactile stories, filming physicality that the viewer can relate to going back to her exceptional and underseen Love and Basketball. When we see her characters’ scar, we know what it cost them, when we see them strain, we feel pangs of empathy in our own muscles. There are close ups of blows to go with the careful choreography, both meaning we take their fighting seriously. The training we see Nawi and her fellow recruits go through is all sports story blood, sweat and tears, we bond to them and get behind them, while Davis, John Boyega as King Ghezo and others set the table with political intrigue. These two forms of storytelling weave in and out alongside broader melodrama, some of it compelling (Nanisca and Nawi’s relationship), some of it not – a romance between Nawi and a half-Dahomean who arrives alongside slavers falls flat. On the whole the director keeps these different elements on course together, by the time we get to climactic battles, everything has been built up to appropriately pop off. It’s action in service of emotion, and in that way comparable both to Black Panther and to Ryan Coogler’s other exhilarator Creed. In Davis, the film has a perfect platform to build that resonance around. 

Davis brings weight to her character’s weariness, grounds the drama and matches up to the demands of being an action lead. She’s a great fit for her director here, flitting between steely glares, murderous mad eyes and welling tears seamlessly, The Woman King succeeds through the performance that she delivers. A strong supporting cast help, Boyega gets an well-rounded outlet for his charisma as the king, Lashana Lynch will win audience hearts as the warm but tough veteran Agojie. Thuso Mbeda is a lesser known performer, but the South African actress has a hard task measuring up to Davis and carrying a lot of the narrative in playing Nawi. That she manages so well is a credit to her, we have several seasons of television showing us that young actors keeping up with Viola is no mean feat.

A popcorn crowd pleaser with gravitas, The Woman King is a movie on a mission, which it accomplishes admirably. With engaging actors, hard hitting action and a jumping off point to delve into underserved areas of history, it’s an old fashioned flick with new focus, making it easy to recommend. 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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