The Woman King Review
The historical epic has seemingly done it all. Seemingly. Ben-Hur, Gladiator, Master and Commander, Saving Private Ryan, Barry Lyndon, etc. Even the Fantasia Film Festival here in Montreal highlights, summer after summer, the latest and greatest feasts for thin eyes about ancient China, Japan, and Korea. But when has the genre ventured to share a tale, any tale, from the continent of Africa? As celebrated as Black Panther may be for its epic qualities, historical it is not. The time has finally come for a slick, lavishly produced story with Hollywood backing about a place and people few people know about, save for specialists of African history. The Woman King arrives in theatres with a battle cry befitting of its central warriors.
Opening narration and a text crawl set the stage. It is 1823 in the kingdom of Dahomey (which eventually becomes modern-day Benin on the continent’s western coast). Rivalries abound, most notably with the Oyo clan. King Ghezo (John Boyega) is protected and served by the Agojie, a women-led and ranked army platoon. Its leader, General Nanisca (Viola Davis) is the tough-as-nails stalwart with the battle scars to prove it. Second in command is Amenza (Sheila Atim), and Izogie (Lashana Lynch) is the main trainer as well as a terrifically gifted warrior. Early in the film, a raid on an Oyo camp sees the Agojie rescue some captives, some of which will be sold to Brazilian slave traders.
As chance has it, one young Dahomey woman, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), finds herself as an Agojie trainee. The times are changing, and dark realities must be contended with. King Ghezo debates whether to alter the state’s economy from the slave trade to palm oil, but pressures from the Oyo, the Brazilians, and Europeans make it difficult. Through it all, Nawi becomes a great warrior and discovers more about herself than she could have ever guessed.
Big Budget Battle Cry
The Woman King is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Although she isn’t a household name (this new film may possibly change that), she has put together some fine movies. 2014’s Beyond the Lights was a solid, mature look behind the scenes of a pop singer’s fame and fortune. The Old Guard, released on Netflix in the summer of 2020, was a rip-roaring science-fiction action movie with a terrific hook and gob-smacking fight sequences. It makes sense to hire her to make a movie that promises both high-octane battles and serious-minded explorations of what life and politics were like in Western Africa in the early 19th century. In a nutshell, The Woman King should be the best of two things Prince-Bythewood has already proven handsomely capable of.
Succinctly put, the movie is without question the former (a great action movie) and mostly but not entirely the latter (carefully crafted story). To start with the good, knowledge that Prince-Bythewood’s endeavour only cost $50M is amazing. It looks far more expensive than that. Maybe shooting in South Africa is a great way to shave off a few million on a budget. A cast of mostly unknown actors who won’t ask for ungodly salaries surely lends a helping hand. Whatever the case may be, Woman King looks like it cost closer to $100M. From the sets to the costumes, one gets the sense that they are travelling into the past to be a fly on the wall and learn about this overlooked place and period in human history.
Fight Like a Girl
The visual flairs extend to the battle sequences. Whether smaller skirmishes, such as the opening rescue mission, or large-scale war at dawn against the Oyo, the director and her crew craft some impressive and inspiring fisticuffs. Granted, the film is rated PG-13, so slashes produce surprisingly little bloodshed, as do swords lunged into torsos, to say nothing that the camera movement works to suggest what an Agojie soldier did with the sword rather than explicitly show it. All the same, the battle choreography is top-notch, and the juggler-like movements with which certain warriors wield their spears and swords are brilliant. One gets the impression that opposing forces had best be ready to face the Agojie or run for the hills.
Speaking of the physicality on display, credit to Viola Davis who, at 57, partakes in the first truly action movie-oriented role of her career. Her General Nanisca is stoic and prideful, a teacher and a hard *ss. This role is akin to seeing Liam Neeson suddenly eviscerate people in the original Taken, a role that had people question “Where in the world did THAT come from?!?”. Playing a role like Nanisca at any age is impressive. To do so for the first time ever at 57 is incredible. Similar praise for Lashana Lynch, most recently seen as 007 in 2021’s No Time to Die. She looks as though she wouldn’t need a sword to break someone in half.
Simple Can be Good
Where does The Woman King go astray? That’s too harsh a criticism. The story is still good, it just isn’t great. For about an hour it feels as though Prince-Bythewood and company are telling a tale about how a would-be slave’s fate can be saved if given a new purpose in life, one that entails protecting the homeland. There are rumblings that the King may forsake selling off people to the South Americans and Europeans, but there is simply too much money to make. Additionally, the Brazilians provide extra protection against the rival Oyo. In essence, it looks like the movie will eventually have those two threads culminate, with Nawi rising up to help Dahomey vanquish foreign interference.
In many respects, the film does that. The issue is that it adds more and more subplots to get to that point rather than take the straightforward route. Sometimes being direct is best, especially when dealing with touchy subjects The Woman King broaches. One involves a potential love with a Brazilian visitor of Dahomey descent. Another, which shan’t be spoiled here, adds another layer that the film simply doesn’t need and comes awfully close to robbing it of what could be an organically heartfelt conclusion. The path to a satisfying conclusion seemed simple, yet the movie wants to complicate it.
Time can be spent discussing some of the historical inaccuracies. Few historical epics can escape the temptation of artistic liberty. Yes, the speech King Gheza delivers near the end sounds a bit off when one learns what happened a few decades later. Some pertinent details surrounding the Agojie, such as why they exist and how they really presented themselves, are either skirted or avoided altogether. At some point, the conversation falls into a seemingly bottomless rabbit hole of tit-for-tats about why the movie isn’t good because it’s inaccurate or why it’s good because it’s still entertaining.
While some story elements do not completely stick the landing, it must be said that seeing a film of this scale that spends time with such a culture does feel fresh in many ways. If one goes in hoping for an entertaining, historically inspired action film, the fruit of Prince-Bythewood’s efforts is easy to like.