The Woman King

The Woman King ★★★★

Powerful Black women take centerstage in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s sweeping, fierce historical action epic The Woman King. The film, inspired by true events, follows the story of the Agojies, the all-female regiment that protected the kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s (now present-day Benin.) But by all means, The Woman King is still entirely fictional. Written by Dana Stevens with the concept by actress Maria Bello, the story takes some historical liberties of these facts and unashamedly follows the old-fashioned template of those Hollywood epics that came before it. Nothing wrong with that, but what makes The Woman King so special, is that despite its crowd-pleasing nature, there’s a significance and emotional intelligence to its formula.

Prince-Bythewood has always been a gifted filmmaker with humanist attention to her characters—and The Woman King is probably her best, most ambitious undertaking. Her work in her recent film The Old Guard was just a teaser to what she’s capable of doing. In this, Prince-Bythewood’s swaggering direction puts focus on Black women at their most powerful. They are the agency fighting for themselves and for the greater good. It’s thrilling to see every choice Prince-Bythewood makes. Her sequences are electrifying and well-mounted. She pays homage to the African way of life but most importantly to the strength of Black femininity: their sisterhood, friendships, desires, sacrifices and ambitions.

With a budget of just 50 million dollars, it’s impressive how finesse and convincing the craftsmanship and production values of this film. From the costumes to the musical scoring, the whole vibes felt fresh, sharp and contemporary despite the period setting of the film.

Viola Davis, who also co-produces, marks a career-best turn as Nanisca the army general. Nanisca is such a fearsome character on the page, but Davis being the intelligent actor that she is, exposes her at her fullest. It’s a full-bodied, rich, transformative performance that captures both the physical strength and vulnerability of a self-sacrificing woman. We rarely see Viola Davis be at the center of carnage and The Woman King does that for us—and it’s triumphant in doing so.

Assisting alongside Davis, are a gifted ensemble of actors led by Thuso Mbedu, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, and Lashana Lynch. Mbedu is outstanding as the young warrior in training, elevating the usual tropes given to the character that she’s playing. Lashana Lynch is the film’s scene-stealer, her charisma just outpours over. Lynch effortlessly blends comic lightness and ferocity in equal measures, a true magnetic performer.

Despite the thinness of the writing, The Woman King soars. Expansive and epic in breadth but oh so intimate in its delivery. Skip this movie if you’re looking for a fact-based, or 12 Years A Slave approach to the story. This ain’t that type of movie. This is meant for general audience consumption and it succeeds well. It got strong direction and acting than most regular Hollywood action films, what more can you ask for?

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