How many historically-inspired epics do you remember that have a strong female force as the lead? Still raking your brain? Well, that’s because there hasn’t been any in Hollywood with a cast of largely black women of THIS scale on the big screen.
Set in the 1820s, The Woman King tells the story of the Agojie, an all-female warrior in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey (now the country of Bénin), led by a badass general Nanisca (Viola Davis). They could very well be the inspiration for Dora Milaje special forces who guard Wakanda in The Black Panther. The Agojie’s task is to protect the kingdom and King Ghezo (John Boyega) who always stay safely in his compound with all his concubines.
It’s very much a male-dominated society where men can have their way with women who are mere objects to be bought and sold. The king pretty much turns a blind eye to all the injustices, even profiting from the slave trade with Europeans at the expense of his fellow black Africans. General Nanisca is training a new generation of young warriors against the kingdom’s numerous enemies. Enter Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a new recruit who’s eager to prove her worth. It’s a sad reality when being a warrior is a ‘safer’ option for women… ‘here we are the hunter, not the prey’ as one new recruit remarks during their grueling training.
Though the film opens with a village battle scene, director Gina Prince-Bythewood (GPB) isn’t all about relentless action. In fact, some of the most memorable moments are the quieter scenes where we learn about the characters. I’m more familiar with GPB’s dramas (Love & Basketball, Beyond The Lights), but she showed her flair for action with Netflix’s The Old Guard. She takes it up several notches here with even more thrilling action that’s brutal without being gratuitously gory. The rating is PG-13 but it’s pushing R for its intense battles.
Naturally, the movie’s biggest weapon is the outstanding cast. It starts at the top with Viola in a sensational performance that stands out even in her already illustrious career. There’s a layer of vulnerability beneath Nanisca’s fierce and seemingly impenetrable exterior. As her past comes back to haunt her, her resolve is put to the test, and witnessing that tough exterior crack, albeit briefly, is heartbreaking to watch.
The supporting cast is top-notch–There’s Lashana Lynch who’s delivered many memorable supporting turns in huge franchises (Captain Marvel, No Time To Die) but finally gets a role worthy of her talents. She gets to be the comic relief here as Agojie’s lead trainer, Izogie. While Davis’ got that intense swagger, Lynch has a more playful swagger. Both characters show that women can be both strong and vulnerable at the same time, being one doesn’t cancel the other, and showing emotion doesn’t equate to weakness.
Sheila Atim has some memorable moments as Nanisca’s caring best friend and right-hand woman. Last but not least, Thuso Medu is impressive in a career-making performance, able to hold her own against a veteran performer like Davis. Her character provides a window from the outside looking into the lives of the Agojie warriors, and we get to see Nawi come into her own as a result.
As for the men, Boyega looks regal enough as a King and he manages to appear sympathetic despite his character’s shortcomings. The one that strikes me is Malik (Jordan Bolger), a biracial man raised in Portugal whose mother is a Dahomey. Before he came to his late mother’s home country, he only saw black Africans as unworthy slaves, but seeing the mighty Agojie women in action is quite a revelation for him.
With all the fighting happening on screen, there’s apparently a long fight to get this story brought to life as well. It’s gratifying to see such a strong female force behind the camera to bring this glorious black-female empowerment story to life. Actress/producer Maria Bello came up with the story after visiting Bénin and Dana Stevens penned the screenplay. London-born DP Polly Morgan shot the film beautifully and most especially, the actors are always well-lit even in the night sequences.
Reportedly, GPB was inspired by films like Braveheart (1995), Gladiator (2000), and The Last of the Mohicans (1992) which are powerful action epics with strong emotional resonance. The Woman King is right up there with those films with its stunning, well-choreographed fight sequences that showcase the physical prowess of the actors. Set to Terence Blanchard‘s rousing score, the action scenes are simply glorious to watch! The cast went through rigorous martial-art training for their warrior roles and it shows! What’s more satisfying is the fact that the action/fight scenes aren’t just cool to watch, but they are meaningful as they’re integral to the story of the Agojie women.
The Woman King has been described by Viola Davis herself as her magnum opus and I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to call her performance a masterpiece. She has been such a phenomenal force on screen, but here she displays brawn, brain, and heart in an Oscar-caliber performance. I’d argue this is also Prince-Bythewood’s best work yet, an important film that’s wonderfully entertaining. I sure hope this film would gain traction throughout award season all the way to Oscars 2023!
Have you seen THE WOMAN KING? Let me know what you think!