The Woman King

The Woman King ★★★


TLDR: I like The Woman King on an entertainment level more than my score might reflect. But there are important reasons why it has to stay at that lower score. The Woman King has two amazing performances that carry the film, two other great performances, good cinematography, and some decent close up action sequences. However, it also has a forgettable narrative with cliche plot points, a brutally uninspired romance, poor wide shot action sequences, and (most importantly) a very very misguided message that could’ve so easily been avoided.

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s (Love & Basketball) “The Woman King” is a decent movie trapped in a very misguided narrative message. Even a very quick Google search instantly shows that it’s pretty silly to frame the Agojie, a group of Dahomey amazons, in such a positive light. Imagine, for example, that the British were our protagonists in this year’s “RRR.” The outrage if the writers for that film had framed the British back then as a righteous group and pretended as if they actively attempted to free slaves/ end slavery would be insane. It’s simply wrong to be so overwhelmingly kind to a group like the Agojie who actually supported slavery in real life (especially when the writing even acts as if they did the opposite). 

For that reason, I wish this and many other films glorifying immoral real life groups like this would instead choose to create an original fictional group to work with. If this was a fictional group of powerful women in the same way that the film portrays them here, The Woman King would be a much more respectable feature with an actually reasonable message to get behind. But in its current state, it’s a real odd choice to tell audiences that this group was as morally acceptable as they are depicted here. It’s one thing to take some creative liberties with history. But to tell the children that will inevitably see this film that this group of women actually existed in the way the writing portrays them as is erroneous. 

Outside of all of that though, I must acknowledge how memorable the two leads are. Viola Davis as Nanisca is as much of a powerhouse as she always is with the dramatic moments. But she gets to showcase her physical capabilities as a performer here in a near equally as skillful way. I honestly didn’t know she had this level of physicality in her (having never seen her in another role like this). Early on in the runtime, I fully believed her strength as a leader and ability to successfully fight against much larger enemies. Who surprised me the most however was Thuso Mbedu as Nawi, a young woman intent on fighting for the Agojie instead of being a part of an arranged marriage. Mbedu’s performance is somehow on par with what Viola Davis achieves here. She’s able to capture the brutality of combat with good physicality during fights sequences (even if they’re not always the best choreographed scenes), handles emotional moments like a seasoned performer, and forms a believable friendship (good chemistry) with Lashana Lynch’s Izogie. I would say she deserves some sort of young actor award but upon looking it up, she’s actually 31! In this case, I think she’s deserving of some other awards for her great work here. Lynch and Sheila Atim also give memorable performances. 

I wish I could praise more about the actual narrative though. The villains feel like cardboard cutouts, the writing for Nanisca realizing the meaning behind her dream uses an outrageously tired concept for her to overcome, Nanisca goes through rushed character development, Nawi has too little and predictable character development, the runtime feels a bit bloated, and the emotional weight of that one cliche death that you always expect in this style of movie is nowhere near where it should be. 

I hope more films like this get made with an emphasis on being an actually organic concept/ screenplay. Stop using real life characters/ groups to avoid the easily avoidable issues that are present in this. Nonetheless, my main takeaway from this film is that I can’t wait to see what else Mbedu stars in for the future. With this and The Underground Railroad series she’s in (I have not seen it but have heard the immense positive buzz), she’s proven her worthiness to become a big star. 

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