Ever since Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther decisively threw open the doors for blockbuster movies that feature predominantly black casts, filmmakers and themes, I’ve been patiently waiting for Hollywood to catch up to the times and provide the full-bloodied cinematic experience the adventures of T’Challa so confidently heralded. The Woman King is that movie.
But not only does Gina Prince-Bythewood’s epic tale of female warriors and African politics deliver all the brutal battle scenes and spirited training that you’d expect of a story of a selfless general leading their devoted troops into battle, it also covers themes of sisterhood, trauma and abuse that all come together to make something of a powerhouse experience that, like the deadly aim of the Agojie, hits virtually every target it aims for.
The year is 1823 and the West African kingdom of Dahomey once again sees its outlying villages raided by the Oyo Empire in order to sell their captives into the slave trade in order to bring their people wealth – however, they are thwarted by the Agojie, the elite battalion of women warriors who liberate the would-be slaves and instead sell their new captives to the slavers. Bartering with the slave markets is how Dahomey made its wealth under it’s old king, but under the new rule of King Ghezo, the take-no-shit Agojie General, Nanisca, hopes that this period of Africans selling Africans into slavery will finally come to an end. However, Nanisca has other reasons to want to put an end to the raids of Oyo general Oba Ade as she has an incredibly personal vendetta with him as she was raped by him and his men many years ago.
In preparation, Nanisca and her trusty, veteran right hands, the loyal Amenza and the mischievous Izogie, start training a new generation of Agojie that contains the willful Nawi, a nineteen year old girl who is given to the order by her outraged father who is unable to shove her into an arranged marriage. However, as Nawi trains, her spirited, stubborn and curious nature marks her out as a troublemaker despite the fact she is could obviously be a gifted warrior.
Meanwhile, accompanying his slaver friend to Africa is Malik, the mixed race son of a former slave who hailed from Dahomey who married her white owner, who wants to see where his mother hailed from and after witnessing the Agojie in action, becomes drawn to Nawi.
As all these threads converge, long buried secrets will be unearthed, blood will be shed and Nanisca will strive to steer her king and his people to do the honorable thing while facing the demons of her past with a bloody great blade in her hand.
Undoubtedly the main draw for The Woman King for me was the sight of a scarred Viola Davis, built like a fucking tank and delivering the mother of all withering stares (a Davis speciality if ever there was one) before leading the charge of an army of fellow warrior women as a visceral battle breaks out. Guess what, that’s exactly what I got and it’s satisfying as Hell, but as well as that, The Woman King contains many intriguing threads that makes sure that proceedings don’t fall into the usual traps of historical epics. The fact that the main cast is predominantly female means that noticably more dimensions are given to a group of characters who could have just been one-note bezerkers spouting hollow speeches about honor and the added themes of surviving and processing rape, gender identity and respecting and rediscovering ones roots in the face of undeniable cruelty means that the movie isn’t just a estrogen soaked parade of battles.
Davis is, unsurprisingly, magnificent, infusing what could have been a stoic rock of a woman and adding subtle layers as the movie goes on as past traumas and present revelations emerge to test her unshakeable mettle, giving her a measured warmth that she only shows when circumstances permit it. However, even though Davis is deservedly plastered all over the promotional material (and credits as she’s also an producer), this certainly isn’t a one woman show. Ridiculously capable back up is provided by a cast savvy enough to realise that a proud stance and waterproof African accents aren’t enough to make this movie as powerfully relatable as it is and most of the credit goes to repeat offenders of awesomeness, Lashana Lynch as the legitimately funny and ridiculously badass Izogie and John Boyega who is obviously having ridiculous amounts of fun swanning around his palace, giving orders to his many prospective brides. But despite how entertaining they are, the movie makes sure (as it does with the majority of its characters) that they have actual depth with Boyega’s King Ghezo having to temper his fair nature with a sizable masculine ego that not even Nanisca can afford to test.
However, most impressive is Thuso Mbedu’s Nawi, through whose eyes we mostly see events through and whose arc of willful child to battle hardened warrior is crisp, concise and intelligent with her youth being used to question the boundaries of the Agojie rules while she and other young women engage in a harrowing, mutilating race in order to pass muster in a set piece that makes the similar scene that kicked of Wonder Woman 1984 look like a ride a Disney Land in comparison.
Are there issues? Some, but nothing here that ruins what Davis and Prince-Blythwood has already accomplished. However, the wish fulfilment of the Dahomey tribe squaring up to the slave ends up being something of a double-edged blade and while I would never complain that the filmmakers have maneuvered history to tell a more inspiring, uplifting tale (Jesus Christ, Ridley Scott and Mel Gibson’s have certainly done it often enough and not for something as noble as stamping out slavery, either), it’s revisionist leanings does kind of give an easy out to some of the more problematic parts of the actual story. But on the other hand, if we didn’t complain when Quentin Tarantino did it in Django Unchained, why the Hell would we complain here and the final assault on the slavering town is as cathartic as it is unabashedly brutal.
Prince-Blythwood’s previous movie was Netflix’s The Old Guard, a movie I found to be a little hollow with uninspired action, however, The Woman King is impressively the opposite, with visceral action that’s easy to follow and breathtakingly shot (Lynch definitely puts those sharpened fingernails to good use) and emotional plot lines that lead to genuinely shocking moments (a twist involving Nawi’s past may be relatively simple in the scale of things, but it literally had me gasping in the cinema). But above all that, theres still nothing quite as impressive as watching the defiantly middle-age Viola Davis take down men easily twice her size and half her age which makes you wonder why she needs to bully super criminals in the Suicide Squad movies when she’s obviously more than capable of doing this shit herself. Give this woman a well deserved hand – before she chops one off and takes it home with her.