Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 14th, 2022
The Woman King (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
Anyone looking for a rousing action-adventure film featuring strong women of color taking a stand against both white supremacy and the patriarchy need look no further than The Woman King, which more than delivers on the promise of its premise. Viola Davis (Widows) stars as Nanisca, leader of the Agojie, an all-female regiment serving the newly installed King Ghezo of Dahomey (John Boyega, Breaking). The year is 1823, and this West African nation, striving to break free from the yoke of the much larger Oyo Empire, hopes to also remove itself from the Atlantic slave trade. An ambitious young ruler, Ghezo relies on the mighty Agojie to make these dreams happen. Bring on the battle.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard), working off a story and script by actress Maria Bello (The Water Man) and screenwriter Dana Stevens (Fatherhood), delivers thrills and poignant drama, alike, with some comic relief mixed in, as well, even if the narrative all too often conforms to the generic conventions of the genre. For anyone who is a Black Panther fan, it is especially exciting to see the real-life women who served as inspiration for Wakanda’s Dora Milaje. That plus the fully committed performances carry the movie through the parts that sometimes disappoint.
Beyond Davis and Boyega, there is a strong ensemble that gamely supports them, including Sheila Atim (Bruised), Lashana Lynch (No Time to Die), and Thuso Mbedu (Cora on Amazon’s The Underground Railroad series). Mbedu plays Nawi, a new recruit to the Agojie who joins them after her father abandons her at the palace, furious that she won’t accept marriage to an older, abusive man. Mbedu invests all of herself into the role, and it’s not her fault that we’ve seen this kind of person before, time and again: rebellious, refusing to follow the rules, yet eventually triumphant both within and above the system. It’s a universal trope, yet still effective.
The central plot revolves around the tensions between European slavers (here represented by the Portuguese), their more-than-willing Oyo partners, and the citizens of Dahomey who want nothing more to do with trafficking their own people. The film further adds a biracial character named Malik (Jordan Bolger, Scarborough), son of a Portuguese merchant and Dahomey slave, who adds further layers of complexity, his loyalties torn between the different sides. He also exists to take his shirt off and look extremely hunky, giving Nawi a potentially dangerous distraction.
From the opening scene, in which Nanisca and her troops attack a Mahi village to free captured Dahomey prisoners, Prince-Bythewood sets the violent, adrenaline-fueled tone. Davis has taken on many different roles in her brilliant career, but never one quite like this. Physically badass, she projects fierce intelligence and resolve, too. No one can defeat or outsmart her, though she has a distressing secret from her past that reveals her vulnerable side.
Whatever the occasional weaknesses of the script, The Woman King is never not engaging. The stakes are high and the villains clear, with enough dramatic subtlety to deepen the well of nuance. And what of the title? In Dahomey, the male king always chooses a woman to elevate to almost-equal status with him, as much co-ruler as confidante. Despite some attempts to create suspense over who will be so anointed, the conclusion is never in any real doubt. Which is all to the good, for Nanisca (along with the woman who so marvelously incarnates her) deserves every bit of glory.