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THE WOMAN KING (2022) review

September 21, 2022


written by: Dana Stevens and Maria Bello
produced by: Cathy Schulman, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon & Maria Bello
directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood
rating: Rated PG-13 (for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing material, thematic content, brief language and partial nudity)
runtime: 135 min.
U.S. release date: September 16, 2022


“The Woman King” is the kind of historical action epic that would’ve fit perfectly alongside the kind of movies studios were releasing during the second half of the 90s (somewhere between “Braveheart” and “Gladiator”), but no one thought back then that the world was ready for some Black Girl Magic! Now, after the popular reaction to the Dora Milaje (a fictional, all-female group of elite warriors that serve as bodyguards for the Black Panther, protective of the nation of Wakanda) which appeared in the successful, award-winning 2018 blockbuster “Black Panther”, such a movie can be embraced. Since “The Woman King” revolves around the Agojie, an all-female African group of warriors assigned to defend the kingdom of Dahomey, it would be easy to draw comparisons with that Marvel Studios hit. But, that movie leapt so this ambitious movie could surprise attack viewers with its ability to balance impressive physical conflicts with gripping emotional drama.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (whose last movie was “The Old Guard,” an action-heavy comic book adaptation with emotion and heart), valiantly turns a little-known tale of bravery from the past into a thrilling story of edu-tainment with “The Woman King”. She delivers a fierce, sweeping tale of compelling courage and bold violence with tremendous authority, while relying a good deal on fine-tuned characterization thanks to a screenplay from Dana Stevens and Maria Bello. Thankfully, there’s no “Based on a True Story” pop-up, leaving room for fictional embellishments that lean heavily on inventive cinema.



As the movie opens, on-screen text indicates the kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin), located in 1820s Western Africa, is at war with enemies in the neighboring tribe of Oyo. With the goal of dominating Africa, the Oyo Empire, led by Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), are given resources from colonist slavers to claim such power over the Dahomey and anyone else who stand in their way. King Ghezo (John Boyega) of the Dahomey is prepared to defend his people, surrounding himself with a collection of celibate and childless female hunter-warriors known as the Agojie, led by General Nansica (Viola Davis). Driven to defend her people and land, Nansica is assisted by two trustworthy confidants, Amenza (Shelia Atim) and Izogie (Lashana Lynch), as they begin to train a new batch of potential Agogjie warriors.

One of the new recruits is the headstrong Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who was given to the King by her father after she refused to participate in an arranged marriage. While she is brave and has admired the bravery and agency the Agojie have from a distance, she is also willfully stubborn and has difficulty following orders, thinking too independently to be part of a group of warriors that rely on each other. Nansica has her eye on Nawi, seeing her potential as a warrior and leader, along with need for refinement. At the same time, Nansica is troubled by King Ghezo’s involvement in the slave trade and the emotional weight of her past, all while seeing the eminent looming threat of the Oyo.



Prince-Bythewood wastes no time as “The Woman King” opens, thankfully focused on showing rather than telling who is who and what is happening in the story she is about to tell. We’ll learn about about motivations and affiliations amidst the characters later on, but immediately on display is General Nansica’s ability to lead the Agojie into a violent ambush against the Oyo. Her goal is simple: free the Dahomey prisoners that have been captured to sell off to slavers. She and her warriors emerge from a thicket under moonlight near the Oyo camp, covered in oil and brandishing various pointy and sharp weapons, surprising and eventually decimating their opponents. It’s a captivating opener, that brings to mind the kind of action from the likes of Mel Gibson, Ridley Scott, and Michael Mann, each of whom has excelled at historical action epics.

Prince-Bythewood and cinematographer Polly Morgan create some great build-up with this opener, understandably relying on the intensity that radiates from the eyes of Viola Davis. Let’s be honest, if you saw Davis slowly come out of some tall grass near you in the dark of night wielding a machete, you’d pee in your pants. The Oscar winner’s eyes have always been just that powerful and she knows how to use them. Playing the titular character, Davis sets out to leave a visceral impression on viewers and she succeeds. At no point will you think there’s no way she could do this. She does all the exhausting physical work in a convincing manner, which is unsurprising considering the typical commitment Davis is known for, but this is also a role that offers a good deal of emotion.

Not only does Davis carry Nansica’s fatigue after a battle, she conveys this woman’s weariness and internal pain on her shoulders and chest. It’s evident and pulls us in closer. You feel what she’s communicating. She may act superhuman, but her heart can be just as heavy as anyone who’s seen those around her cut down while others look to her for direction. The screenplay also provides Davis a heart-wrenching backstory that haunts Nansica, something that is triggered the more time she spends trying to mold Nawi into a warrior that is mindful of lives of those around her.



While “The Woman King” obviously follows Nansica’s character, it turns out to be just as much Nawi’s story as well. As the young and determined standout among the newly initiated, Mbedu is a superb and needed addition to the cast, providing us with a gateway into the world of these powerful and strong women. She may look like a young teen as Nawi, but it seems fitting considering she has been disregarding and overlooked as frail and naïve in her past. As it turns out, the character is strong and resilient and refined over time into a powerful leader in her own right. She even is presented with an exterior challenge when she catches the attention of a sympathetic Brazilian colonist (Jordan Bolger). While it’s a subplot that probably isn’t needed, it becomes an avenue that offers more dimension to Mbedu’s Nawi.

That being said, it’s a subplot that does lead into the developing horrors of slavery, providing an added urgency to “The Woman King,” one that touches on Nanisca’s concerns for her people and disrupting her dealings with Ghezo, who’s caught between the betterment of his kingdom and the slow destruction of it. It turns out to be a fascinating aspect to the story, fueling a unique friction between Nansica and Ghezo, as one sees slavery as the trafficking of the Dahomey and the other can’t help but to see it as a way of negotiating business with a growing powerful force.

Davis and Mbedu essentially co-lead the movie’s story, but the heart of “The Woman King” goes to Lashana Lynch, who is perhaps the most well-balanced member of the Agojie. She offers extraordinary support to Davis, as a knowing source of reliable strength and gives Mbedu the steady and patient support she needs. Lynch almost steals the movie as Izogie, but delivers just enough to not distract from the rest of the cast.

Ultimately, everyone in the cast is giving 100%, which gives Prince-Bythewood some amazing talent to showcase as she sets out to inspire viewers with a rousing and aggressive emotional tale of the black experience from a female perspective.



RATING: ***1/2



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