Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” is a tough and forceful action period drama to be admired and savored. While its main historical subject is interesting enough to engage us, the movie works a compelling piece of entertainment thanks to its distinctive mood and details in addition to a number of gritty action sequences, and it is also anchored by several strong performances from its female cast members at the its center.
The story is mainly set in the West African kingdom of Dahomey in 1823, which is now Benin at present. Dahomey has been in conflict with the Oyo Empire for years as the soldiers of the Oyo Empire have often kidnapped lots of people in Dahomey for the ongoing slave trade, and the opening sequence shows General Nanisca (Viola Davis), the leader of the all-female warrior group called “the Agojie”, and her soldiers swiftly attacking a village in the Oyo Empire at one night for retrieving those kidnapped women.
When Nanisca and her soldiers return to the palace, they are wholeheartedly welcomed for the success of their latest mission, and King Ghezo (John Boyega), a young man who recently became the next one to occupy the throne thanks to the considerable support from Nanisca, has a plan for Nanisca. As Nanisca advises, he is willing to stop slave trade in addition to standing up against the Oyo Empire, and he is also considering giving Nanisca a certain honorable promotion, which will put her right next to him in the rank of power.
Meanwhile, the story also focuses on a strong-willed young girl named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu). When she defiantly rejects a suitor who is evidently not so appropriate for her. her angry father promptly takes her to the palace because there is the only one option for her now. Once she enters the palace which is mostly female-dominant, she goes through a military training period along with many other young women for becoming a member of the Agojie, and her irrepressible spirit and personality soon come to draw attention from not only Nanisca but also several other veterans including Izogie (Lashana Lynch), who gives some helpful advice to Nawi during the first day of her training.
Although she struggles more than once during the first several days of training, Nawi gradually shows more of her potentials as a warrior as befriending some of her fellow trainees. When there eventually comes a time where she and other trainees are put into the final test which will determine the rest of their life, she surely tries her best, and she also impresses Nanisca and other spectators a lot as doing what she believes is the right thing to do without any hesitation.
As Nawi and other Agojie members are ready for the upcoming war under their general’s command, Nawi comes to gain more trust from Nanisca, but Nanisca still puts some distance between her and Nawi even though she sees a lot of herself from Nawi, and she also has to cope with the old pain from her past. As a survivor of atrocious sexual violence, she has something she has kept to herself besides her lasting trauma from that horrible time, and she is only consoled by her second-in-command Amenza (Shelia Atim), who has always stood by her with care and understanding for many years.
The situation becomes melodramatic with several other things including Nina’s unexpected relationship with a Brazilian lad whose mother was taken from Dahomey a long time ago, but the screenplay by Dana Stevens, which is developed from the story by Stevens and his co-writer Maria Bello, keeps things rolling as usual, and Prince-Bythewood and her crew members including cinematographer Polly Morgan let us delve more into vivid and colorful cultural mood and details. I will not be surprised if the production design by Akin McKenzie and the costume design by Gersha Phillip get Oscar-nominated in next year, and the same thing can be said about the terrific score by Terence Blanchard, which does much more than galvanizing the action scenes in the film as required.
As shown from her previous film “The Old Guard” (2020), Prince-Bythewood is no stranger to action at all, and she skillfully handles several key action sequences in the movie. Thanks to the competent editing by Terilyn A. Shropshire, these action sequences are presented with considerable clarity and impact, and we can sense that the performers in the film really hurl themselves into tough actions unfolded onto the screen.
While her strong presence has always impressed us during last two decades, Viola Davis, who incidentally participated in the production of the film along with Bello, demonstrates another side of her sheer talent here in this film, and her action-packed performance surely reminds us that she is really too good to play that thankless supporting role in recent DC Extended Universe flicks. On the opposite, Thuso Mbedu, who was unforgettable in Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed Amazon Prime TV miniseries “The Underground Railroad”, is equally stellar as another strong emotional center of the film, and Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and John Boyega are also effective in their respective supporting roles.
In conclusion, “The Woman King” is another commendable work from Prince-Bythewood, who has steadily advanced since her first feature film “Love & Basketball” (2000). Although I must point out that the movie is not so historically accurate (Dahomey was actually quite more active in slave trade compared to how it is depicted in the film, by the way), I enjoyed it as a top-notch genre piece which works as well as, say, “Braveheart” (1995), and I also appreciated its good story as well as its abundance of strong female characters. Davis and her fellow actresses surely rule here, and that is certainly more than enough for recommendation.
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