The Woman King, 2022.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.
Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Jayme Lawson, Adrienne Warren, Angélique Kidjo, Jordan Bolger, Masali Baduza, Jimmy Odukoya, Thando Dlomo, Tuks Tad Lungu, Makgotso M, Chioma Antoinette Umeala, and Shaina West.
A historical epic inspired by the true events that happened in The Kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most powerful states of Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries.
As the Agojie (a 19th-century all-women kings guard) returns to the African Kingdom of Dahomey, rows of civilian women line up to admire them and marvel at their formidable battle prowess. Considering The Woman King (directed by The Old Guard‘s Gina Prince-Bythewood, using a script from Dana Stevens, pulling from history alongside Maria Bello to conceive this fictional interpretation of events) opens with a look at the fierce and agile sisterhood in action, led by Viola Davis’ General Nanisca (turning in not only an expectedly outstanding emotional turn but also flooring intensely physical work) it’s safe to say others as white as me will also be impressed.
But one has to wonder about the inspiring impact that battle sequence and the ensuing events will have on a Black audience, partially because it’s difficult to think of something similar that has broken through into the mainstream or funded by Hollywood. You could go for the comic book movie comparison and point to the upcoming Black Panther sequel, but that’s fictional. These women were the real, courageous as hell, hardened, and battle-proven deal.
So it’s frustrating that Sony has sent out a sanitized PG-13 version of The Woman King that consistently hampers all the compelling elements it has going for it, presumably ordering the filmmakers to tone down the violence and harrowing subject material. Even the opening sequence mentioned above is shockingly bloodless despite copious stabbing and slicing. What’s left is the impact of punches and takedowns, which is fortunately effective and sold well by the actors and stunt team. Still, these battles are so clean and chopped up with rapid-cut editing that it lessens the brutality and visceral nature of the situation. Frankly, these warriors deserve better.
The Woman King also pulls off a bait-and-switch after utilizing a narrated graphic to set the stage for the kingdom’s conflict. Dahomey is at odds with the connecting Oyo kingdom (repulsed by the idea of an all-women army), both kingdoms take part in the transatlantic slave trade for different reasons, and the melee weapons of the Agojie are somewhat becoming outdated in favor of muskets and other firearms/explosives. The kingdoms perpetuate a vicious cycle of violence and slave trading, something that Nanisca realizes cannot go on, yet the young and inexperienced King Ghezo (John Boyega) rejects the proposal to take up farming for economic stability over cruelly selling people.
Much like the violence on display, this fascinating political intrigue and rarely explored place in history is also tackled safely. That’s not to say that The Woman King needed to be tacky Black pain porn, but these are challenging decisions to deal with that would ultimately define a kingdom. Instead, the narrative pivots to General Nanisca as a source of inspiration for recruits to the Agojie, namely 19-year-old Nawi (with Thuso Mbedu delivering an evocative and outstanding physical performance capable of hanging with living legend Viola Davis).
After ruining another potential arranged marriage set up by her father, Nawi is sent off to the King, which is not so bad for her anyway, as it seems to be her dream to become one of these Amazons. Nawi is an easily likable character on her journey to becoming a warrior. Her interactions with General Nanisca and trainer Izogie (Lashana Lynch providing some levity, wisdom, and more exciting heroics) are engaging. However, in transitioning into a training course for the next generation, The Woman King somewhat loses focus on those bigger issues.
There’s a reason why the filmmakers are so committed to fleshing out the stubbornness, tactical inventiveness, and resiliency of Nawi in juxtaposition with General Nanisca’s tradition and experience, and it’s all terrifically acted, but the historical epic quickly swings far into the fictional, more mainstream palatable dramatic side of things. Then, there’s become groan-worthy when Nawi begins to fall for Malik (Jordan Bolger), the handsome love interest that happens to be a slave-trading son of a slave figuring out his place in the world.
When the women are asking tough questions about what should be done financially and voicing their opinions on cutting ties with the transatlantic slave business (which mostly falls on deaf ears because the King has something to prove), it operates as a moving lesson that women probably do have the right ideas and should be listened to more. Hell, they should be allowed to rule more often. There’s just an unfortunate chunk of The Woman King that falls into bland drama with cliché reveals that, once again, distract from the far more captivating politics.
At least The Woman King has the good sense to end with a series of rousing, chest-beating action sequences and dynamite, powerful exchanges between Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu. It’s a competently crafted, average film that gets a pass because this relatively untapped period of history is ripe for thrillingly important adaptations. Viola Davis is not only in top form but also busts out new tricks. It’s just unfortunate that Sony felt the need to sanitize the hell out of this. Still, progress is progress, and the overall story here is satisfying and rewarding with awe-inspiring heroes.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com