In 1823, the West African Kingdom of Dahomey is protected by the powerful Agojie, an all-female military regiment led by Nanisca (Viola Davis). The Agojie have dedicated their lives, forgoing romantic relationships and children, in service of protecting the kingdom from those who threaten its way of life. As new king, Ghezo (John Boyega), has ascended to the throne, with vastly different views than his predecessor on his people’s future, tensions in the region are high. The neighbouring and oppressive Oyo Empire has longed to control Dahomey and its resources but have been stopped at every turn by the Agojie.
Co-existing on a fragile arrangement, one where truces are as stable as sheered dental floss, both the Dahomey and the Oyo have gained a lot of wealth and weapons from their questionable business deals with the Europeans. Trading captured individuals for weapons, both sides have contributed greatly to the Atlantic Slave Trade in ways Ghezo no longer wants to be a part of. Of course, breaking away from such problematic dealings is easier said than done, especially when the Oyo forces are growing more powerful each day.
As one observes in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s action epic The Woman King, breaking free of the things that keep us in a comfortable holding pattern is a difficult and necessary part of life. The film is as much about removing the shackles of fear as it is a tale of the importance of uplifting one’s community and forging new paths in the process.
Our guide into this volatile world with complicated politics is young Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), an orphan who refuses to follow her adopted father’s wishes and agree to an arranged marriage. Fiercely independent Nawi longs to join the Agojie and ultimately gets her wish when her father can no longer tolerate her disobedience. Becoming a member of the group is no easy task though as Nanisca and her loyal warriors (played by Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim, to name a few) put all the new recruits through a rigorous training regiment that will test them in ways they never expected.
Already proving that she is more than capable of making thrilling action films with The Old Guard, Prince-Bythewood showcases her gift for storytelling once again with The Woman King. The film is filled with heart-pounding fight sequences and crowd-pleasing moments that will have viewers on the edge of their seats. However, Prince-Bythewood understands that the real glue to a great epic is the characters at its core.
By placing the action within the confines of the slave trade, The Woman King brings levels to the unfolding events that one does not get from most action films. The fact that both the Dahomey and the Oyo are playing a role in the oppression of Black people adds a complicated dynamic to the characters in the film and our response to them. On one hand it feels odd to make a Hollywood blockbuster where audiences are expected to cheer for those who enabled colonizers, even if they are attempting to break free of their sins and start a new chapter of atonement. However, the conflict between doing what is right and doing what you are told adds an interesting layer to character arcs in the film.
Despite her tough as nails demeanor, Nanisca is a fractured person on the inside. She is dealing with the lasting scars of her own trauma, while also contributing to perpetuation of the legacy of trauma on others. Her ultimate act of defiance is not spurred on by her caring about the Black bodies in cages, but rather a personal attachment to select individuals. Even Nawi, whose youthfulness and new ideas present a possible change in mindset for the clan, finds herself getting in bed with those who have stood by while colonizers have exacted their brutality.
Considering the messiness of the history the film is turning into popcorn fair, the script by Dana Stevenson, who worked on the story with actress Maria Bello, walks a difficult tightrope. It never ignores the realities of the time but struggles to explore the full weight of it, a perfect example of this can be found in Nawi’s problematic love arc. What keeps the film from never teetering over the edge is the strong work by the ensemble cast.
Delivering a strong and layered performance, Viola Davis is sensational as the aging warrior torn between her duty and her emotions. Bringing a fierce fire to the role, while still displaying great vulnerability, Davis is a sight to behold. She reminds audiences that history is filled with Black kings, queens, and warriors whose stories have yet to be told. Mbedu matches Davis’ energy and charisma throughout the film. The heart of the film, Mbedu carries many pivotal scenes on her back, and solidifies herself a star on the rise. It was also nice to see actresses like Lynch and Atim get a chance to showcase their great comedic timing and softer sides as well.
Filled with great performances that capture the complexity of the characters and jaw-dropping action set piece, Prince-Bythewood’s film manages to rise above the messy history it is telling. Offering complicated substance along with its spectacle, The Woman King is a thrilling film that will no doubt be a crowd-pleaser. One just wishes the first film about Black female warriors was not one anchored to the rocky boat of slavery.