The Woman King

The Woman King ★★★½

"They do not know an evil is coming."

Despite the idiotic calls of people who have not actually seen this film about its lack of broad historical accuracy – namely, that it doesn't completely account for Africa's leaders' roles in allowing their own people to be taken as slaves, a disingenuous counterpoint generally made by conservative trolls who had no intention to ever see it – nothing could be further from the truth, and anybody who finally watches Gina Prince-Bythewood's The Woman King will realize the significance of an action epic like this. Set in Africa with an almost entirely Black cast, telling this story is so vitally important today in a world where morons tell you to "learn your history!" but cannot name more than three countries from this continent nor a single one of their contemporary or historical leaders. Fuck that noise, and see this movie.

The West African kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin) has persevered into the early 19th Century, despite neighboring kingdoms and tribes being tragically slaughtered or captured for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade for generations. Much of the reason for the safety of the Dahomey people and King Ghezo (John Boyega) belongs with Nanisca (Viola Davis), general of the all-female Agojie warriors. For centuries they have trained for war and dispatched with colonizers and explorers looking to exploit them and their resources. Many others have fallen as time approaches the 1820s, and while slavery has been abolished from some empires and colonies it nevertheless persists enough such that slave traders are still targeted vulnerable places.

Dahomey is not one of them, but it has earned wealth from the slave trade and the selling of captives of war. Ghezo promises to end this practice in time, but the Oyo warriors – allied with European slavers like Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) – are on the doorstep of Dahomey. With a batch of new recruits to be trained by Izogie (Lashana Lynch), including young Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), they must prepare for what could be their final battle.

Also covered, albeit in a very different way, in Werner Herzog's underrated Cobra Verde, this era of history is relatively absent from classes or pop culture. That's sad but common, with African History almost entirely ignored in school and misunderstood by the general public. Once and for all doing away with the horseshit that Aftican people were somehow lesser than or uncivilized – or worse, deserving of their enslavement and cultural decimation – screenwriter Dana Stevens (based on a story co-written with Maria Bello) finally brings this inspiring fight for freedom to a wide audience.

There's a good bit of world-building, then, to be done in order for viewers to have context and background into who these people are and why they may not have been taught about them. Frankly, the Dahomey story is multi-faceted like any civilization or culture, but has the added challenge of going against the prevailing narrative of a subservient or complicit Aftican people. It's easier to dismiss or ignore. The truth is complicated.

So Prince-Bythewood does well to show as much as possible, rather than tell, but it is difficult with so much to explain. Maybe the most important scene is one early in the film when we first enter the kingdom in its tranquil beauty but also bustling economy. It's brilliant, showing the independence and industry of the people, finding resources to maintain that freedom. It should help to bury the myth that these were simple, uncivilized, historyless people.

A silly and altogether meaningless dramatic twist comes at the end of a protracted Second Act, one this reviewer found a mistake to insert. As well, the insertion of a supporting character who is tied by blood to the Dahomey, but raised elsewhere, is equally forgettable and confounding. I won't let those stumbles ruin this terrific movie, one with action set pieces five times better than Prince-Bythewood's lifeless The Old Guard and some incredible stunt work within evocative period detail.

Most importantly, quite literally nothing has ever been made like The Woman King before, certainly not from a real studio and with a budget over $50 million. Flaws or not, this achievement feels like a watershed moment in film, not dissimilar to that of Black Panther. No, it won't quite leave that kind of mark, as it'll never have the reach of Marvel, but with this being based on a true story one can hope this rousing epic inspires some inquiring minds. There were cheers and tears in my theatre at the conclusion for a reason.

Friend who wrote a better review than me: Heath Lynch.
Find others like them on my two special lists here and here!

Added to Gina Prince-Bythewood ranked.
Added to The Narrative Films of 2022, ranked.

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