“The Woman King” Is Fierce, Fabulous and Battle-Tested
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s enjoyable and insightful epic film inspired by true events works wonderfully on the big screen
Movie Review: “The Woman King”
by Omar Moore
September 16, 2022
“To be a warrior you have to kill your tears,” advises General Nanisca (Viola Davis) to Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) as she trains Nawi for the fight of her and the Dahomey kingdom’s life in “The Woman King”, which expanded its release today in North American cinemas. The Agojie and the Oyo have battled far longer and earlier than the Hatfields and McCoys could ever have dreamed. Along with European enslavers the Oyo have enslaved the Agojie and bled Dahomey’s resources dry for many a year. Enough becomes enough in 1823 Western Africa, and Nanisca leads an all-female Agojie army to vanquish the malevolent male forces of the Oyo.
That last line you just read is no spoiler alert; this actually happened (or a slight variation of it did) back in the day. An all-female military was hardly unusual in nations across the African continent in its multi-millennia-long history; Queen Nzingha of Ndongo and Matamba (now Angola), also a military general, fought off the Portuguese for at least 37 years up to the mid-17th century. A read of Ivan Van Sertima’s book “Black Women In Antiquity” reveals that many a Black woman fought in battle in various African nations against the most rapacious white male European colonizers and imperialists, very often with great success.
Film director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”, “Beyond The Lights” among others) puts white male Portuguese enslavers squarely in the realm for their rightful skewering in the excellent and enthralling “The Woman King”. As written by actor-producer Maria Bello and film producer Dana Stevens, the focus on white enslavement of Africans on the continent and some of the Black complicity in it is an important aspect of the director’s film. Ms. Prince-Bythewood, whose scope and breadth are rendered near-flawlessly here, expertly directs a beautiful canvas of dark-skinned chocolate-brown Black women, bodies glistening, regal, toned and buffed, shining like sparkling mirrors. The Agojie are efficient, methodical, nimble and primed for battle, and the film moves with the same agility, finding its rhythm and settling down after the film’s pulsating opening minutes.
The colorful, warm and beatific splendor of the African continent (filmed partly in the Kwazulu-Natal province in South Africa) belies the bloody battles and bone-crunching confrontations and executions the Agojie and Ojo experience. Most of the impaling is off-camera, but the visceral temperature is so high that “The Woman King” feels more like an R-rated film than the PG-13 adventure drama and battle epic it is. This is no slight: the energy, passion and vigor Ms. Prince-Bythewood brings with her cinematic vision is matched by the performances of Ms. Davis and especially Ms. Mbedu, whose Mawi comes of age so palpably. Both actors will receive Oscar nominations early next year. They are richly deserving of so much more.
Ms. Davis’s stature and command is completely sublimated in the acute care she takes in crafting Nanisca in all her totality. Ms. Davis is sublimely beautiful and brilliant to watch. Her every move, gesture, expression and pause are measured with deep intention and assurance. Nanisca is powerful and accessible, relatable and unparalleled. Ms. Mbedu reaches another realm so thoroughly. A relative newcomer, she has arrived on the Tinseltown big screen without any lack of confidence or lack of authenticity.
Mawi is a rebel. Nanisca is a noble, tenacious warrior with scars. The push and pull between the two forms the core of “The Woman King”. Mawi has some listening to do but when Nanisca’s words fall on deaf ears, Mawi’s tutelage comes from Izogi (a marvelous and indelible Lashana Lynch), whose charisma matches her quiet courage.
The film alternates between conflict and camaraderie. Editor Terilyn A. Shropshire deftly balances love stories, origin stories, monarchic hierarchy, colonialism and enslavement along with war stories in under two hours and 15 minutes. You’d wish “The Woman King” would be 20 minutes longer so it could breathe more and further luxuriate in its own visual splendor. Yet “Woman”, with its gorgeous costumes designed by Gersha Phillips, allows us a look at the human beings behind these fired-up female warriors, and the tender vulnerabilities beneath cast-iron battle-tested exteriors.
Terence Blanchard’s score is splendid, tonally reaching all the textures of the terrain that this lovely, triumphant and moving film moves on. It is way past time the maestro Mr. Blanchard received the recognition from the Academy he should have received nearly 30 years ago with “Malcolm X”. Maybe his time will come in 2023. Not to be outdone, John Boyega (“Attack The Block”, “Star Wars” films) plays the king of Dahomey, and he brings equal parts levity and seriousness to the role. Mr. Boyega is a joy to watch, a fine actor in full control of his domain.
I was proud and delighted that the entire cast and director showcased dark Black women — a group of people you rarely see on the big screen in any guise in 2022 let alone as the vast majority of a single Hollywood film’s cast. Throughout, the sisterhood of the Agojie is overwhelming, joyous, cohesive, contentious and oh-so beautiful. The warrior spirit and heart of “The Woman King” is pure, prodigious and victorious.
Also with: Sheila Atim, Hero Fiennes Tiffin.
“The Woman King” is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing material, thematic content, brief language and partial nudity. The film’s running time is two hours and 14 minutes. Cry with joy, pride and victory!