Believe it or not, there is much to look forward to when the days of summer begin to dwindle and the transition into the fall/winter seasons begin. A signaling of change occurs, at least in the film industry. Summer blockbusters offer a safe haven from the scorching heat while some of the biggest stars lend their talents to the silver screen benefitting the box office and the theaters themselves. More special however this year, given the tumultuous past 2 and a half years we all suffered through, the movies have made a triumphant return to glory and the fans along with it.
Coming at the tail end of the of the summer blockbuster season that is sure to overlap with the Oscar bait season is The Woman King directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood off a screenplay and story written Maria Bello and Dana Stevens. At first glance, The Woman King will be sure to check all the boxes that go hand in hand with a blockbuster as well as with a few key resounding Oscar season marks. For one, the message of the film immediately establishes the love and kinship these Dahomey Amazons have for one another. All they sacrifice is for themselves, their king, and their vast community. Nothing and no one will stand in the way of that.
Opening the film is a group of Agojie warriors stalking their prey, a rival tribe who abducted women with European alliances, like lionesses hunting for their cubs. Led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), the Amazon’s show no mercy in their brutality against the slavers, saving the captured women, escorting them home to Dahomey to begin training as warriors themselves. Among the recruits is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), gifted to King Ghezo (John Boyega) by her father after refusing the many male suitors he has chosen to marry her off to.
Leading the charge into battle with a bloodcurdling war cry is Viola Davis. The physicality alone from the actress is impressive enough but the added emotional gravitas her character exudes takes the performance to another level. Add to that her incredible transformation from her larger-than-life performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to the ferocious Amazon warrior here. It’s truly impressive in the sense that Christian Bale can perform the same magic role to role. While Davis is certainly the lead in this ensemble piece, those surrounding her also take command whenever possible.
Surrounding Nanisca are her most trusted allies Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim). Both of whom will empower anyone with fearlessness, honesty, and loyalty. Lynch in particular is a standout among the ensemble, balancing a rough around the edges ‘big sister’ with a soft kindness behind her gaze. Whereas Thuso Mbedu is the heartbeat of the film. Empowering in her own way, Nawi and Mbedu prove that heart and bravery come in all shapes and sizes. Mbedu is the anchor The Woman King needs to keep the ship afloat though the rest of the amazons are there as an added backup.
The premise starts out simple enough – a revenge tale of native tribes who never get the chance to tell their story going up against their usurpers – in this case the Portuguese conquered Brazil. But when the Bythewood led film switches to the subplots, what starts as a tightly wound script begins to unravel, centering on convenience rather than telling a good story. However, though a subplot that begins during the midway point feel shoehorned in to beef up an already promising tale of bravery, the performances by those involved make up for the decision. A decision that nearly derails the entire film is held on by a thread.
There are visible weak spots in the armor.
At 135 minutes, The Woman King moves at a brisk pace. Sequences of action and bloodshed are complimented well with celebrations of culture and moments of reflection and quiet. It’s not all violence and I rather enjoyed the scenes of harmony and melodrama more than the action during some moments. This is where the relationships are forged the most, especially between Nawi and Izogie. Added in and undervalued is a political intrigue of the period – amazons are portrayed as loyal to their king but represent an equality that is rarely depicted in these times.
An all-female led king’s guard is awe inspiring, the clear inspiration for the Dora Milage, the fictional all-female king’s guard of Wakanda and the Black Panther. Even with its short comings, The Woman King is a sight worth seeing – unleashing the warrior in all of us led by the stoic performance by John Boyega and the fierce performance by Viola Davis. When the film puts aside the story of revenge to introduce European sympathizers, the story begins to break under convolution. I’d rather feel the excruciating pain Nawi felt when losing a friend or living with a decision that goes against the king to support Nanisca than see things from the point of view of the villain. In a fictionalized tale, there should be no likability for the wicked.
It may not be perfect, but The Woman King is an adrenaline rush from start to finish. Full of heart, charm and vengeance, the story of Dahomey Agojie will elicit the best in all of us and be the launchpad for more stories of bravery by under-represented peoples. After a bleak august, The Woman King is a spark that will carry over into the next months’ worth of films.
Screenplay By: Dana Stevens
Story By: Dana Stevens & Maria Bello
Directed By: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Music By: Terence Blanchard
Cinematography: Polly Morgan
Starring: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Jordan Bolger, Jimmy Odukoya
Release Date: September 16, 2022
Running Time: 2 Hours 14 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%