Review of The Woman King
A motivational tale about historical African women warriors.
The Woman King is a welcome diversion from the recent flurry of action movies, most of which are associated with superhero franchises. Instead, we get a period piece about the Agojie, female warriors from the Dahomey Kingdom in Africa, from director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard). The ladies of her tribe and the captive women from other tribes are trained to become exceptional warriors of unmatched respect by General Nanisca, played by Viola Davis, who is their weary but ruthless general. Even the most soap operatic subplots are elevated by the ensemble cast to make this a movie worth seeing, even though the writing itself is a little superficial when it comes to the nuances of the social and political group dynamics of the period.
The main tribe arrangement between the more populous Oyo Empire and the Kingdom of Dahomey is described in a title plate for the story, which is set in West Africa in 1823. The latter prized its female soldiers so highly that there was gender balance at its highest levels of authority, including the Agojie, an all-female guard. The most admired of them even attained the title of Woman King, who served as the revered reign mate to the King, fighting alongside their male counterparts.
However, there is no gender balance across tribes or even in individual Dahomey households, where fathers frequently sell off their daughters to wealthy, older men without consideration for how they will be treated or for what they might want. One of those girls, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), fights back when she is assigned to a violent old man. Nawi’s father gives her to King Ghezo (John Boyega) out of frustration with her sassy ways and lack of worth, and she is given the chance to join the Agojie. Nawi finds independence and friendship among her other trainees despite the harsh training regiment run by General Nanisca, and she is taught by the skilled warrior Izogie (Lashana Lynch). They grow a sisterhood that is delightful to witness and support as they establish themselves as a new family inside the king’s palace.
Nawi finally enlists in the Agojie as they prepare to fight off a variety of outside challenges, such as the despotic Oyo who want higher tribute payments in exchange for protection from transatlantic slave smugglers frequenting their local ports. Seeing how both the Dahomey and the Oyo are involved in aiding the slave trade is one of the most intriguing moral conundrums in the movie. The vicious circle of preying on one another for profit has allowed everyone to gain immense wealth by selling their slaves to the slavers to replenish their wallets. Nanisca is the one who notices how the raids and constant conflicts between the tribes are harming their own, and she tries to persuade Ghezo to turn to new markets like palm oil in order to stop dealing in human flesh.
Even though it’s interesting to watch the hypocrisy play out, it doesn’t extend to the other important tensions in the narrative. The script by Dana Stevens has a propensity to cast the problems in the area in what can be considered overly binary terms. Despite their participation in the selling of their people, the Dahomey are portrayed as the progressive good guys while the Oyos are the evil ones. To make it simple for us to follow along, the intricacies of ancient group dynamics are reduced to their most fundamental forms. However, that undermines what may have been a deeper investigation of the truths of West African history. Instead, the script takes a more populist tack by relying on an excessive number of melodramatic side stories, such as covert pregnancies, a romance with a dashing European, political manoeuvring by Ghezo’s trophy wife against Nanisca, and a rapist adversary. The majority of those storylines, however, succeed because the ensemble does such an amazing job of portraying the characters’ humanity. Even still, by the 75-minute mark, the picture feels bloated due to the sheer number of side stories, which is further made worse by a rambling conclusion that should have been condensed for greater emotional effect.
However, even with these criticisms, The Woman King is still a compelling film about the creativity and kindness of the Agojie warriors. It’s energising and motivating to watch them train, support, and fight next to one another. Prince-Bythewood is still displaying a keen eye for blocking exciting action scenes. The stunt work is also remarkably grounded in the realism of their training and their skill with their chosen weapons since the women are very much human. Combat sequences that seem authentic and physical are the consequence. And while some viewers may be restrained by the restrictions of its PG-13 rating, the film is not at all lessened by the reduction in blood and gore.
The piece’s emotional focus is Viola Davis, whose performance skillfully shifts from ferocious to tender.
Davis gives a superb performance as the bruised and exhausted Nanisca. Whether it’s her king or her army, she is always tenacious. We are able to sense the lady’s heart below Davis’ stern exterior, particularly in scenes with her right-hand woman Amenza (Sheila Atim) and Nawi. Additionally, Lynch does an exceptional job of shaping Izogie to serve as Nanisca’s opposite. Both of them are seasoned senior fighters, but Izogie is more understanding and approachable with young Nawi and acts as a powerful substitute for a traditional symbol of strength for those just starting out. Then there is Mbedu, whose expressive face really demands the camera. Nawi carries a lot of the emotional burden, and Mbedu’s emotions are frequently what cause the audience to cry or cheer. She is an artist who is undoubtedly talented and plays a significant role in why The Woman King transcends some of its clichés.
The Woman King triumphs over the drawbacks of its overcrowded storyline thanks to a variety of performances that raise the overall quality. Viola Davis, who is the piece’s emotional focal point and expertly crafts her performance to shift from fierce to vulnerable as needed, is as to be expected. More unexpectedly, Thuso Mbedu, a breakout talent, plays Nawi, the new recruit for the Agojie. She drives the majority of the narrative and excels in every role the film gives her. The end result is an entertaining film with a diverse cast of strong women who, even in 1823, are all than capable of saving themselves and do so in an exciting way.