Friday, September 16, 2022

The Woman King - Review

 Hollywood’s newest historical action-drama, The Woman King, showcases the often forgotten kingdoms of West Africa. With director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest film, the kingdom of Dahomey and its mighty Agojie warriors get the spotlight, and illustrate just how ahead of their time they were for the early 19th century. And leading this ferocious, unapologetic force of Dahomey women is their top general, Nanisca, another role in a long list of characters perfectly suited to showcase the talents of the great Viola Davis.

In the 1800s, a group of all-female warriors protects the African kingdom of Dahomey with skills and fierceness unlike anything the world has ever seen. Faced with a new threat, Gen. Nanisca trains the next generation of recruits to fight against a foreign enemy that's determined to destroy their way of life.

The tone of The Woman King is so obviously emulating the historical epics of the past, made in the same vein as films like Gladiator or The Last of the Mohicans. And while it may lack some of those films more intense violence, director Prince-Bythewood is more than capable of directing a solid action scene and delivers some new visual exhilaration through the template of something familiar. The difference in setting certainly aids in this, as the images of Viola Davis and the rest of the Agojie warriors rise from the brush in dead of night with swords and spears in hand is an extraordinary tone setter from the start in a film that only rises from there. 

From a narrative standpoint, the film inserts Nawi, played by Thuso Mbedu, a daughter disowned by her family and gifted to the King as a new recruit for the famed warriors. Nawi serves as a great entry into this world, learning the ins and outs of what makes the Agojie who they are, including all the glorious training and competition montages that come with it. Mbedu plays Nawi’s impetuousness as both a strength and a weakness, lacing the character with more depth than just a woman thrust into a situation. Between this and The Underground Railroad, Mbedu is slowly making a name for herself as a powerhouse. 

And though Mbedu is a highlight, that doesn’t mean she’s the only one. Lashana Lynch is a personal MVP here, playing the seasoned warrior Izogie. Lynch brings an imposing presence, a confidence that permeates and allows the younger recruits to feed off of and eventually find their own confidence. Izogie is an excellent counter to the more stoic and quiet leadership of General Nanisca. And that’s where we really see the glue that holds it all together in Viola Davis. By now people are aware of what Davis can do, but The Woman King provides her a new opportunity: to be a fighter. Davis can play the powerful leader in her sleep at this point, but as Nanisca, she fights with more than just her words, getting to show off some action chops too, and hopefully provides some more chances to do so in the future. 

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood steers a sometimes muddled script into a solidly made, action-packed glimpse into the world of the Dahomey kingdom. It’s a richly crafted world, from the detailed palace and the village surrounding, to the exquisite costuming, every inch feels like a fully realized world. And while it would’ve been easy to get lost in the rules and hierarchies of the time, Prince-Bythewood focuses on the central figures with the their swords in hand. The historical accuracies of its narrative could certainly be brought to question, but even so, The Woman King is a reminder that even the dramatized history serves as an excellent glimpse into the stories that time forgot. 

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