The Woman King, 2022.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.
Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Adrienne Warren, Jayme Lawson, Masali Baduza, Angélique Kidjo and Jordan Bolger.
Inspired by true events that took place in the Kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most powerful states of 18th and 19th century Africa, The Woman King “follows Nanisca (Viola Davis), general of the all-female military unit, and Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), an ambitious recruit, who together fought enemies who violated their honor, enslaved their people, and threatened to destroy everything they’ve lived for.”
Viola Davis’ latest film The Woman King from director Gina Prince-Bythewood is an exciting historical epic with Davis leading an incredible ensemble cast. With compelling characters, great direction and an interesting if somewhat generic story, The Woman King is an entertaining film that showcases the strong talent of its cast
The Woman King follows the African kingdom of Dahomey, led by Boyega’s King Ghezo with Davis’ General Nanisca leading its military. Nanisca trains a group of new recruits into the all female unit of the Agojie as their enemies converge to destroy Dahomey and enslave its people into warring tribes and the European slave trade.
Davis steals the show as Nanisca, portraying the many layers to the complex character as she balances Nanisca’s hard-edged warrior mentality against her compassion and vulnerability. Her chemistry with all members of the cast, but particularly Thuso Mbedu’s Nawi, is very well done as Nanisca shows different sides to herself depending on who she is with, yet still conveys the strength and power that ensures the loyalty and admiration of all the soldiers who follow her. Davis is also nothing less than a beast physically, showcasing those muscles any chance she gets either in the quiet dramatic scenes or the film’s many battles. What Davis achieves is a combination of an emotional and physical performance that carries the film from start to finish.
Mbedu gives an equally strong performance as Nawi, the young and ambitious Agojie recruit striving to prove herself to Nanisca and her new sisters. She’s a standout of the cast and also has great chemistry with many of her costars. Her development as a somewhat naïve recruit into skilled warrior is compelling, though falls back on some of the tropes of the typical hero’s journey. It does not take much away from Mbedu though as she gives her all in the performance.
Lashana Lynch impresses as Izogie, one of Nanisca’s most trusted commanders, with how she delivers the character’s wit, philosophy and skill in battle. Boyega gives a commanding presence as King Ghezo, a young king trying to ensure the safety of his kingdom while balancing competing visions for its future as Ghezo is reluctant to stop participating in the Atlantic slave trade when some of his advisors, namely Nanisca, want to veer away from the inhumane practice.
The royal court’s politics is an intriguing story, but unfortunately The Woman King pays less attention to court dealings and the infighting among them as the film eventually falls back on the training of the younger Agojie and the war between them and their brutal neighbouring kingdom. There are several interesting beats, especially with how Dahomey and their neighbours view the slave trade, but by the third act the villains are more of the typical moustache-twirling variety than they are the threatening figures they were earlier. It’s at this section the film falls utilizes the usual tropes found in these types of historical epics rather than retaining the different feel and focus The Woman King began with.
The film’s action is also something to be desired. There is indeed a great amount of well done choreography with the actresses and stunt performers doing flips, tackles and all types of wrestling moves, not to mention swinging swords, spears and other weaponry, which is all impressive. It’s clear the amount of work Davis, Mbedu, Lynch, Sheila Atim and others put into preparing for the intense fighting.
However, there are many edits that are quick, close-up and choppy, giving a less than clear image of some of the fighting or of which character is the focus. This is especially noticeable in the film’s middle battle with the large number of soldiers on the battlefield. When the camera does pull back for better visuals, the action is smooth, intricate and sometimes vicious, even if the majority of the carnage is bloodless to keep the film at a PG-13 rating.
Another aspect to be said of the visuals is just how much the colours, locations and sets pop off the screen. The costumes are beautifully made with several vibrant colours and the sets, whether it is Dahomey’s royal palace or the slave trading outpost, are well constructed and display their beauty and cruelty respectively. The music from both the songs and chants sung by the characters to Terence Blanchard’s terrific score also capture the emotions of the film’s story and Dahomey society.
Despite some of the faults with the film’s action and more complex story ideas, The Woman King is very well directed by Prince-Bythewood with stunning performances from Davis, Mbedu and the rest of the cast. There is plenty that will appeal to genre fans through the acting and action, making the film an entertaining movie audiences will enjoy even if it doesn’t fully meet its own potential.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.