Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Stars: Viola Davis, Sheila Atim, Thuso Mbedu
Gestated by Maria Bello (A History of Violence) following a trip to Benin which evidently left a clear impression, The Woman King is an imagined account of the experiences of General Nansica (Viola Davis); leader of the historically-accurate Agojie – the fearsome all-female warriors of the West African kingdom of Dahomey circa 1823. In spite of this date stamp it’s a fiery, timely proposition; fulfilling an evident gap in the cinematic landscape that Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther glaringly shone a light on. The need and desire for Black action cinema with a fealty to African roots; be they real or imagined.
If Bello seems like an unlikely source for such material, Gina Prince-Bythewood is a natural caretaker who has eschewed us a glossy and stylish picture. Be it Criterion-approved classics like Love & Basketball or her buoyant Netflix superhero movie The Old Guard, she has a knack for polished, emotionally resonant pictures that play broadly without feeling overly sacrificial. Hers is a confident, encompassing cinema.
The story beats of The Woman King show both ambition and an urge to play to the crowds. We join Nansica far into her lifelong career with the Agojie, battle-hardened and battle-scarred. Acting as our proxy in discovering this world is 19-year-old Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a head-strong young woman whose refusal to mutely oblige her father’s wishes has her palmed off on the palace guard. We follow her through an almost Utopian vision of boot camp. Nansica eyes her with suspicion, recognising Nawi’s innate skill as much as her propensity for undisciplined behaviour.
As backdrop to this, we are advised via on-screen text and narration of ongoing struggles between Dahomey and the neighbouring Oyo Empire, who are deeply involved in the slave trade emanating from Portugal. The film’s opening set-to between factions is a blood-strewn whirlwind of assured combat action; elements that are then withdrawn from the narrative for long stretches before The Woman King amps up to its explosive third act.
Which is not to say that The Woman King is anything close to uneventful. Far from it. The rigors of training for Nawi offer plenty of opportunities for athletic theatrics and competition. At a remove from this, the dignified King Ghezo (John Boyega) has to contend with both a precarious diplomatic situation and the fraught domesticity of placating multiple wives. And then there are an assortment of other narrative tangents at play for Nansica and company; a rape-revenge angle is pursued; a lost daughter story is employed; Nawi even sneaks away from training here and there to rendezvous with under-cooked love interest and slaver’s accomplice Malik (Jordan Bolger). Many plates are kept spinning. Short attention spans are admirably served.
While many of these are boilerplate manoeuvres – almost cliché – Prince-Bythewood and her cast commit to all of them with utter sincerity. Watching, we might recognise soap opera contrivance or melodrama, but the conviction involved sells even the flimsier elements swept up in The Woman King‘s expansive reach. This sense of warmth and encouragement to participate is mirrored in the beautiful production design and the amply attractive manner in which cinematographer Polly Morgan captures it all. It is endlessly refreshing to see these faces framed on the vastness of the cinema screen with the power and prominence of major movie stars. For Davis and Boyega that may be business-as-usual, but much of the remainder of the cast have here been afforded the kind of magnification that even modern cinema rarely allows.
This element of pride and triumph is not to be undervalued and the performers who have been given this opportunity go at it with gusto. Mbedu is a starlet in the making. A natural who has as much if not more screen time than Davis and more than holds her own. Flanking these two, rising star Lashana Lynch makes Nawi’s immediate superior and – for want of a better term – drill instructor Izogie one of the warmest presences in any given scene, while Sheila Atim commands attention as Nansica’s athletic lifelong contemporary. Like Lynch, Atim has a seasoned career under her belt already, but rarely has she been afforded such a mesmeric and varied showcase.
And the same must be said for Davis, taking on the kind of physically demanding and aggressive role that women of her age don’t normally have access to. The Woman King isn’t just revelatory in its showcase of Black talent and African history (however fictionalised), but in the roles it provides the women at its core. The enthusiasm both behind and in front of the camera overcomes virtually all of the narrative familiarity one might find here, while the role reversals themselves feel thrilling.
Particularly triumphant is any sequence which undermines the Portuguese interlopers. Initially, the English language concession for the African characters feels like a necessary evil of the Hollywood system. The only way to sell an already niche subject to a finicky wide audience. That the Portuguese characters then speak in their own language with subtitles enhances their ‘otherness’, particularly the snivelling Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin – big Chalamet-understudy vibes). Given white cinema’s long history of puffing up imperialist efforts in developing countries, seeing the inverse feels like overdue recognition. The tables are well and truly turned, and anyone who enjoyed the toppling of slaver statues that became a hot trend in vandalism worldwide will have much to smile about come the end of The Woman King.
Like Coogler’s Black Panther, this is an attempt to normalise the presence of Black and African faces and stories in the contemporary culture. If The Woman King trades in palatable machinations and recognisable tropes (drawing on everything from adventure serials and Disney to exploitation cinema), then it is to better steer more daring follow-ups further down the pipeline. As it stands, this film’s earnestness and abundantly full heart is more than enough to carry us through. It may guide us keenly to tears or joy, but – like Cameron at his most magical – it always makes the journey feel guileless. And, thanks to Prince-Bythewood’s assured and immersive handling of the action scenes, The Woman King more than serves its mandate as thrilling adventure cinema, irrespective of it’s progressive collateral. A movie for the masses as much as Top Gun: Maverick.