Punchy historical action epic is very entertaining (if not hugely original narratively) as well as being a triumph of representation
Director: Gina Prince-Bythe
Cast: Viola Davis (General Nanisca), Thuso Mbedu (Nawi), Lashana Lynch (Izogie), Sheila Atim (Amenza), John Boyega (King Ghezo), Hero Fiennes Tiffin (Santo Ferreira), Adrienne Warren (Ode), Jayme Lawson (Shante), Masali Baduza (Fumbe), Angélique Kidjo (The Meunon), Jimmy Odukoya General Oba Ade), Thando Dlomo (Kelu), Jordan Bolger (Malik)
It’s 1823 in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey. The kingdom is trapped in the middle of a host of competing interests: most notably the rival Oyo empire and the European slavers controlling the region’s main port. Dahomey depends for its security on the Agojie, an elite group of women warriors commanded by their respected general Nanisca (Viola Davis). War brews between Dahomey and Oyo, and Nanisca is pushing King Ghezo (John Boyega) to end Dahomey’s involvement in the slave trade. At the same time, a new Agojie recruit, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) brings memories of past traumas flooding back to Nanisca – might she and Nawi have some lost bond?
The Woman King is a pulsating action film, a mixture of Braveheart and Black Panther (it even has a cold open, as the Agojie storm an Oyo village to save captured Dahomey citizens bound for the slave ships, that feels like a straight lift from the latter film’s opening). Proudly celebrating both women and black people (men are very much in secondary roles, while the only white character is a hypocritical slaver played with relish by Hero Fiennes Tiffin), it’s a punch in the solar plexus for what’s been a male-dominated genre.
Watching it I suddenly realised, half-way through, that if the film had been made 10 or 15 years ago, the plucky new recruit having to prove she belonged among the Agojie would have been played by a white actress. There would have been a flashback to the child being found by the Agojie and then a montage of her searching from fear to longing to emulate the women around her. Like Cruise in The Last Samurai, she would have become the best-of-the-best, accepted by her new black sisterhood. It’s a triumph that Hollywood no longer needs stories like this filtered through white eyes before they would even consider bringing them to the screen.
Instead, the focus is strongly on a story that wants to celebrate the rich culture and history of African kingdoms. Dahomey’s civilisation, advanced farming and irrigation, egalitarian culture and humane religious and spiritual practices, are shown in loving detail. Their tenuous position as a small kingdom surrounded by rivals is carefully presented, just as the corrupting nature of European powers is made clear. It is they who have turned slavery – an ever-present in African history – into an industry that dominates the African economy and has led to a subtle devaluation of human lives that many Africans openly collaborate in.
In this, Prince-Bythe’s tightly directed film juggles a coming-of-age story for Nawi with a coming-to-terms story for Nanisca. It’s a film that manages to present both in the context of a series of action set-pieces and exciting training montages (the Agojie effectively have to complete a massive obstacle course to qualify as a member of the sisterhood). To be honest, much in the film isn’t really that original, more a remix of set-pieces and ideas from similar films. What makes it stand out is the representation and the context where it is taking place.
It also allows impressive actors to take on roles way outside of public expectations. None more so than Viola Davis, whose pumped up physique shatters any perceptions of what you might expect. This is a tour-de-force role from Davis, as she plays a defiant and strong woman, secretly terrified of trauma in her own past (and worries about her own weakness) who leads by charismatic example, but is just as capable of unjust slap-downs. She’s a woman struggling to embrace all facets of herself, doing so in the spotlight of a whole country looking to her for leadership. It makes for a powerful performance from Davis, perfectly fusing her skill at playing matronly warmth, imperious distance and deep reserves of determination and courage.
There are similarly excellent performances from a uniformly strong cast, with Lashana Lynch a stand-out as a courageous fighter who surprises herself with her mentorship abilities. Thuso Mbedu gives a star-making turn as Nawi, a young woman who matches Nanisca for bull-headedness and suppressed self-doubt, who reveals herself as a natural leader. Shelia Atim is excellent as Nanisca’s level-headed trusted number two, while John Boyega walks perfectly a fine-line of a man teetering between being a wise leader and a playboy.
They are helped by a film that may lack originality in its plotting and structure, but makes up for that with its warmth for its characters, and the gritty, involving realism of its shooting. Prince-Bythe keeps the pace of the film running smoothly and stages each of the film’s many set-pieces with a dynamism that keep you on the edge of your seat. She also successfully manages to incorporate some searching material around Nanisca’s past traumas without being exploitative.
Historically, the film is a little dubious, walking a carefully curated line on Dahomey’s involvement in slavery (in many ways it might have been better if the film was set in a fictional kingdom inspired by Dahomey). It doesn’t dwell on the Agojie chaining up their captives to be shipped to the slavery markets. It pushes an anti-slavery message strongly – but ignores the historical fact that the real Ghezo continued in the trade until the bitter end. (Legitimate points could have been made about his right to the same compensation as plantation owners elsewhere.) There is a complex, difficult story here that the film romanticises into something with cleaner rights and wrongs.
But, with a history of poor representation and white-only-lens view on African culture in film, you can forgive a film aiming to redress that balance. Strongly directed, exciting and crowd-pleasing, with well-drawn characters played with real skill by a very strong cast, it might recycle many ideas from other films, but it does it with a compelling freshness.