The Woman King: The BRWC Review
The Woman King Synopsis: The Agojie, an all-female unit of warriors who protect the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s, and its leader General Nanisca (Viola Davis), must train the next generation of recruits for battle against an enemy determined to destroy their way of life.
A fierce ensemble of female warriors led by their war-tested leader General Nanisca faces off in a battle over their kingdom’s prosperity in The Woman King. Histroical epics like this latest project from The Old Guard director Gina Prince-Bythewood are a rarity in today’s marketplace. Semi-fictional reimaginings of historical happenings, like Gladiator, Glory, and Braveheart, used to serve as uproarious crowdpleasers and highly-coveted award staples. Decades after those titles’ success, the genre is now reserved almost exclusively for TV programming or straight-to-streaming offerings due to its decreased marketability.
With The Woman King, Prince-Bythewood and her creative team take a sincere exploration of a neglected chapter in world history. The results provide a thrilling blend of grand, old-school entertainment and impactful storytelling.
Prince-Bythewood, the auteur behind soulful indie favorites like Love and Basketball, continues to assert herself as one of the industry’s premier voices. Like with Old Guard, the director imbues a vital sense of patience in her character-driven approach that’s sorely missing from other big-budget actioners. She never lets the guise of stimulating setpieces overwhelm the material’s strengths, dedicating a significant portion of screentime to insular struggles facing Nanisca and members of the Agojie army.
Each dramatic frame balances restraint and expressive emotions to relay revelations with well-modulated tact. In a climate where several dramas strain themselves in pursuit of majestic moments of grandeur, Prince-Bythewood’s skilled touch allows viewers to connect with the film’s characters and ideas with impressive naturalism. She is also continuing to elevate her technical abilities in action filmmaking. Paired with cinematographer Polly Morgan’s kinetic framing, the duo expressively displays slashing swords and closely-contested combat while retaining much-needed gravitas and urgency.
The patient build-up is an ideal canvas for The Woman King’s all-star cast. As the soft-spoken yet magnetic Nanisca, Viola Davis exhibits her transfixing talent in every frame. Davis expertly balances the character’s brawn while exploring the vulnerabilities that rest under her surface. No Time to Die standout Lashana Lynch and John Boyega imbue undeniable conviction and charisma in their respective roles. I also can’t forget to mention relative newcomer Thuso Mbedu, who, in several ways, becomes the film’s beating heart as a newcomer to the Agojie. Mbedu’s natural potency and radiance onscreen will likely make her a star to watch going forward.
The Woman King may present itself to many as a war film, but there are ample ideas effectively ruminating under the surface. Dana Stevens’ astute screenplay wisely centers on the dual exploitation facing Agojie members and their Dahomey nation-state. Her dual-pronged observations offer meaningful personal and societal reflections alike. The several scenes dedicated to Nanisca and her army’s history of male objectification offer an all-too-relevant portrait of gender inequities. While their experiences showcase horrifying realities, the characters’ undying perseverance ultimately provides an inspiring story of strength in oneself and the community camaraderie fortifying that dynamic.
Some viewers have taken issue with the film’s depiction of Dahomey as a collaborator in the African slave trade. Personally, I think the inclusion of the nation’s real-world history is an essential addition. The Dahomey’s dependence upon an unethical deal made with colonizing European powers acts as a much-needed mirroring of ill-treatment on a grander societal level. Just as the Agojie warriors discover identity through their heroic pursuits, Dahomey gradually forms a self-sufficient nation unburdened by the corrupt influence of callous partners.
The Woman King does endure some hiccups – particularly in a few subplots that try too hard to spell out the film’s conceits (the arc of a sympathetic colonizer feels especially contrived). Still, the minor misgivings never mask Prince-Bythewood and her team’s remarkable achievement here. The Woman King shines as an uproarious crowdpleaser bolstered by its deeply-empathetic undercurrent. Don’t be surprised if the film becomes a recurring staple come award season.
The Woman King is now playing in theaters.
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