The Woman King

The Woman King ★★★½

A welcome widening of history, The Woman King takes place in the African kingdom of Dahomey, circa 1820, where an elite group of female warriors, led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), protect the king (John Boyega) against threats both nearby and European. In its acknowledgement of the role of women in African military history and a more complicated (if still simplified) depiction of enslavement, the movie offers a fresh vantage point on the era. And it has a strong enough cast—not only Davis, who tempers fiery resolve with deep sorrow, but also Thuso Mbedu as an impertinent young recruit and Lashana Lynch as her playful but demanding mentor—to make these power plays of the past feel personal. Unfortunately the screenplay, by Dana Stevens, relies on crowd-pleasing story beats and injects a groan-worthy romantic subplot; the movie yearns a bit too much to be a hit. At least director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, Beyond the Lights, The Old Guard) brings a lively musicality to the sequences depicting Dahomey cultural rituals, as well as a clean ferocity to the many (and gruesome) battle sequences. Like the warriors at its center, The Woman King is regal and deadly.

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