‘The Woman King’ is victorious feel-good entertainment 2
Oscar Award-winning Viola Davis stars as General Nanisca in 'The Woman King.' Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Culture

Review: ‘The Woman King’ is the kind of old-fashioned epic Hollywood doesn’t make anymore

The movie wears the mantles of feel-good entertainment, grand historical epic, and beacon on the neglected histories of Black people with boisterous swagger.
Andrew Paredes | Oct 05 2022

The Woman King is the kind of old-fashioned cinematic epic that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. One that walks with a muscular strut unburdened by Marvel’s CGI-generated fantastical environments, yet grounded in identifiable stakes provided by actual history. It is also a rousing victory lap from director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who has proven she can mount both intimate love stories (Love and Basketball) and eye-popping action set pieces (Netflix’s The Old Guard), in our current cinematic period when the Oscars crowned two female directors as the best two years in a row.

The Woman King
“I saw in Nanisca a fully realized human being, and a woman who was tapping into her strength fully,” says Davis. “I love her physical strength and I did see myself in that."

That’s contemporary context, now here’s some history: The Woman King is “inspired” by actual events centered around the Agojie, an army of women warriors serving the precolonial West African kingdom of Dahomey. (The realm was estimated to be about one-eighth the size of Central Park and is now encompassed by modern-day Benin.) As the Star Wars-reminiscent opening crawl will tell you, it is 1823, and Ghezo (played by Star Wars alumni John Boyega), one of the most consequential kings in Dahomey’s history, has just started his reign. Under Ghezo’s watch, Dahomey will successfully break from its tributary status to the Oyo Empire and win significant military victories against surrounding strongholds eyeing its inhabitants for captivity and eventual sale to the Atlantic slave trade. But under Ghezo’s reign, Dahomey will face even more pressure on the global front, as the British will enforce naval blockades and put the squeeze on West African kingdoms to end the slave trade they have relied upon to supply them with the latest firepower.

The Woman King
The Woman King is “inspired” by actual events centered around the Agojie, an army of women warriors serving the precolonial West African kingdom of Dahomey.

But the British blockades are years down the line, and in these early years of his regime, Ghezo is a fresh-faced monarch taking over from his brother’s brutal rule. But there’s no way The Woman King can’t address the slave trade, not when you have advocates for Black excellence like Prince-Bythewood behind the camera and Viola Davis in front of it. Davis plays Nanisca, an Agojie general whose dynamic with her king reminds me of a more benign Green Hornet and Kato, or a less comedic Nandor and Guillermo if you happen to be a fan of What We Do in the Shadows: Boyega swans around in his ceremonial robes, waiting for cues from his council on what to do next, while Davis and her fierce army do the dirty work of protecting the realm’s borders and interests, all while giving glory to their boss.

In Nanisca, The Woman King deploys its staunch objection to the idea of devaluing one life in subjugation to another. Which is why I don’t understand calls for a boycott of the film due to historical inaccuracy. It’s true Dahomey was engaged in the slave trade (a fact the film doesn’t attempt to whitewash) and it’s true Dahomey didn’t really try to break away from the ugly business of selling fellow Africans for profit until the British forced them to (this historical nugget would have been anachronistic to the film’s timeline). 

The Woman King
Lashana Lynch stars as Izogie.

But a Greatest Showman-level of historical revisionism this is not: It is entirely conceivable that there would have been conscientious objectors within the kingdom, absolutely plausible that there would have been advocates for alternative income (apart from her military duties, Nanisca tries to open Ghoze’s eyes to the earning potential of palm oil), and the film doesn’t end with Ghoze having a “Hallelujah!” moment anyway. But when anti-slavery sentiments are being delivered in Davis’ grave voice and expressed with Davis’ gravitas, The Woman King leaves no doubt where it stands on the history.

And what a kickass lead Davis makes! The Woman King opens with the Agojie retrieving some of their captive kin from a rival tribe, with Davis and her cohorts, their dark skin shining, rising from the tall reeds of the nighttime African bush. They make for a fearsome, hallucinatory sight. Prince-Bythewood situates her camera at ground level so that cinematographer Polly Morgan can frame these women against the blinding rays of the sun or outlined by the orange of a nighttime bonfire, forcing you to look up at them with a sense of mythical awe. (The fight choreography is top-notch, which is why I wish Terilyn A. Shropshire’s editing felt a bit more fluid; its choppiness unfortunately implies some post-production cosmetic work.)

The Woman King
A tough, seasoned veteran, Nanisca carries the scars – internal and external – of many past battles.

The actual story kicks in when we are introduced to Nawi, played by The Underground Railroad’s Thosu Mbedu. Nawi is an orphan kicked out of her adopted home when she refuses to be betrothed; she is deposited at the Agoujie’s doorstep as punishment. Nawi is meant to be the audience proxy, our way into the Agoujie’s cloistered lifestyle—no men and having babies—and our introduction to the women populating its ranks. If The Woman King is to have any supporting actress nods, my heart is set on two actors: Lashana Lynch (who was last seen kicking ass in No Time to Die) as Izogie, who administers gentle hectoring and tough love in equal measure as Nawi’s mentor; and Shiela Atim who, with her lanky stature and gazelle-like limbs, manages to be both ethereal and immediate as Nanisca’s second-in-command.

Both these women are allowed to just be, and when you see them doing their stuff on the battlefield, it is galvanizing. Nawi is not afforded the same luxury: Two of the film’s most melodramatic subplots hinge on her character, and Mbedu does a fine job making Nawi feel alive and vital. But the dramatic twists are jarring given that, with her hair pulled back in cornrows and her babyish features shorn of visible makeup, Mbedu looks to be about 12. More problematically, Nawi’s subplots get less and less convincing and the writing (by Dana Stevens, with a story credit from Maria Bello—yes, the Maria Bello of Coyote Ugly and A History of Violence!) gets weaker and weaker as they go through their obligatory turns.

The Woman King
Davis with the film's director Gina Prince-Bythewood

I can’t help but feel that The Woman King would have been a more nuanced historical epic if one—or even both!—of these subplots had been sacrificed to make more room for the exploration of the Agojie’s place in the politics of its time. They feel like a concession to Hollywood storytelling conventions. At one point, The Woman King even devolves into post-natal trauma, and while it gives Davis a chance to cry quiet, fat drops of tears—Davis is amazing, of course—I wonder what she could do given, say, the simultaneous challenges of steering a military, maneuvering slave diplomacy, and navigating palace intrigue.

Still, The Woman King feels like a victory; it wears the mantles of feel-good entertainment, grand historical epic, and beacon on the neglected histories of Black people with boisterous swagger. Watch it on the biggest possible screen now.

The Woman King opens in Philippine cinemas on October 5, Wednesday.

Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures