Synopsis – A historical epic inspired by the true events that happened in The Kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most powerful states of Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries.
My Take – With the much awaited Marvel sequel, Black Panther, Wakanda Forever, is only a few days away from release, making it the right time to visit director Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s ride into 19th-century African history, mainly as the historical action drama carries the similar weight for which Black Panther (2018) was mainly appreciated for.
Framed as an old school Hollywood action spectacular, the film is a largely fictionalized story of the Agojie, an all-female group of warriors formed to protect the former Dahomey Kingdom. A scintillating portrayal of powerful women protectors driving change in one of world history’s most pivotal and often heart-rending times, the era of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
But beyond a film that does its bit to rectify historical exclusion of African narratives in Hollywood, the film primarily works as a superb crowd-pleaser. Muscular in its action sequences, sweeping in scope, and a superb cast predominantly composed of Black women, this is exactly the kind of epic that just doesn’t get made any more.
While the familiar thematic beats of moralism, love, and community, director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard) and writers Maria Bello and Dana Stevens (The Nightingale) may not exactly rewrite cinematic language, but there’s plenty of freshness in their approach to make the film worth watching.
Yes, the considering its run time of 135 minutes, it takes a long time to get to a point, yet it is this slow, methodical build-up that wins us over with its incredible story of strength, endurance, and loyalty.
Set in 1823, in the West African kingdom of Dahomey, the story follows Nanisca (Viola Davis), the battle-scarred formidable general of the Agojie, the leader of an all-female group of warriors, who is always on a hyper alert status for any sign of attack from their old enemy, the Oyo Empire. Worried that their new king Ghezo (John Boyega), who recently deposed his brother in a coup, is not sufficiently focused on these things.
With her loyal lieutenants, Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim), at her side, Nanisca finds herself strangely preoccupied by a new hothead recruit, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who has been effectively dumped on the military by an angry father on account of her resistance to marriage.
However, when white slave traders arrive in Africa as part of an alliance with the Oyo, led by General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), begin attacking and taking people from their villages, Nanisca is forced to make a stand, all the while making a terrible discovery about her past.
Here, director Gina Prince-Bythewood and writers Maria Bello and Dana Stevens beautifully capture an African feminist premise rooted in the empowerment of women. With hints of Gladiator (2000) and Braveheart (1995), the film is interestingly old-fashioned yet bracingly contemporary in the way it tackles everything.
Most importantly, it doesn’t shy away from topics that many slavery films evade, such as black people’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The story’s beats might feel vintage or simply second-hand, but the film gives its cast the opportunity to properly flesh out their characters; it dares to tackle uncomfortable themes.
It’s about overcoming trauma; it confronts and interrogates the role of some African peoples – the Dahomey included – in the enslavement of others. What elevates the picture is the fight choreography that is without a doubt exemplary. This one is not a film that sets out for documentary-like realism, but instead it craves to satisfy audiences with its bloodthirsty action scenes, as these female warriors slice and dice their way through their male opponents.
If the point is that the Agojie equaled any man on the battlefield, director Prince-Bythewood gives the action a potent realism and detail. Gymnastic fight scenes come complete with a visceral crunch. Her film is so attuned to what makes an audience tick, you could see it in an empty cinema and still hear the cheering.
Performance wise, as expected Viola Davis is phenomenal as always. The highly-proclaimed actress is perfect for the role of the ruthless, defensive, protective leader; the emotional depth Davis taps into is frankly impressive. She hits all the notes from being a trauma survivor, bereaved mother to a sister in arms, impeccably.
Davis‘ character’s more conservative, regimented, typically “top brass” attributes are beautifully offset by Thuso Mbedu, Sheila Atim, and Lashana Lynch who match her power, ferocity, humanity, and emotion creating the heart, soul and core of the film. Their chemistry and interaction are mesmerizing and the solid foundation that the film is built upon.
Of course, there is also John Boyega as the stately, robe-swishing King, a role befitting his natural charm. In other roles, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Adrienne Warren, Jayme Lawson, Jordan Bolger and Jimmy Odukoya are effective. On the whole, ‘The Woman King’ is an entertaining and empowering crowd-pleaser with a stunning lead turn from Viola Davis.
Directed – Gina Prince-Bythewood
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 135 minutes