At a time when Hollywood seems torn between its promises to rectify historical exclusion and its comfort with existing conservatism, there is, unfairly, a lot riding on The Woman King, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s action film inspired by the women warriors of the Dahomey Kingdom in precolonial Benin. It doesn’t help that the movie also has had a well-documented, arduous journey from concept to screen, facing rejection and skepticism at every turn. Before its premiere at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, one could feel the nervous buzz among audience members dutifully shuffling to their assigned seats.
But by the end of the opening sequence, a kinetic stretch during which blades slice flesh and fists collide with faces, it was clear that The Woman King would be greeted by a generous reception. Energetic performances and technical precision come together to glorious effect in Prince-Bythewood’s rousing action film. It’s a lush, prime piece of entertainment in many respects.
The Woman King
The Bottom Line
Narratively muddled, but entertaining and technically brilliant.
But as a product of Hollywood, working in the American cinematic lexicon, The Woman King, with all its good intentions, nonetheless falls into the expected traps of melodrama and obfuscated history. Perhaps those flaws will be the subject of later conversations, when The Woman King stimulates impassioned critical discourse — the type that leads to an enthusiastic push to explore the African continent’s rich precolonial history or copious present-day narratives.
Among the key strengths of the film is a cadre of stellar, high-octane turns, especially from Viola Davis. The Oscar-winning actress, known for digging into her characters’ psyches, accesses an impressive level of emotional depth and nuance as Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie.
Her character is familiar in her complexity: a ruthless, protective leader plagued by a reflexive defensiveness. Nanisca loves the women in her regimen, whom she refers to as sisters, but struggles to embrace different ideas. That posture makes her relationship with the Agojie’s newest recruit, Nawi (a sharp Thuso Mbedu), initially difficult. The two frequently butt heads as the young fighter repeatedly questions why certain rules — lifelong celibacy, for example — still exist. Mbedu, the jewel of Barry Jenkins’ Underground Railroad, shines as Nawi, a teenager sent to join the Agojie after her father abandons the project of marrying her off.
The training of the newest cohort of fighters frames the first half of The Woman King, which takes great care to build a detailed portrait of Agojie life in the Dahomey Kingdom. These scenes, in addition to the action sequences, showcase Akin McKenzie and Gersha Phillips’ crisp production and costume designs. We see the youngest women doing drills within the palace’s terra cotta walls, running laps through the tall grasslands of the surrounding area and wrestling each other to improve their tactical skills. There’s also a palpable sororal energy between these women, young and old. In Amenza (Sheila Atim), Nanisca has a devoted friend; in Izogie (a wonderful Lashana Lynch), Nawi finds comfort and necessary reality checks. These montages are backed by Terence Blanchard’s exuberant score.
The meticulous set design and triumphant soundscape come together to create an enchanting, apocryphal narrative about protecting and ethically expanding an empire — if such a notion exists. But Dana Stevens’ screenplay, based on Maria Bello’s story, tries to balance several competing and not always steady plotlines over the course of two hours. The Woman King begins as portraiture and then surrenders to melodrama when faced with the challenges of translating history for the screen and constructing a coherent geopolitical thread.
The origin of the Agojie is not reliably documented, but scholars suspect their unit was born out of necessity: The Dahomey, known for their strategic warfare and slave raids, countered the attrition of young men by recruiting women into military ranks; every unmarried woman could be enlisted. The Woman King doesn’t flesh out the origin story, but it does acknowledge and attempt to tackle the kingdom’s participation in enslaving other Africans.
Taking a pseudo-Pan-Africanist turn, the film puts Nanisca in the role of dissenter. With the nation initiating a war with the neighboring Oyo kingdom, to whom they have paid tribute for decades, the Agojie general urges King Ghezo (John Boyega) to think about the Dahomey’s future. She argues with him about the immorality of selling their own people to the Portuguese and suggests the kingdom turn to palm oil production for trade instead. Ghezo is unconvinced, fearing that change would lead to the kingdom’s demise. Nanisca implores him not to trust the colonizers.
The Woman King flits between the war with the Oyo, the broader battle against the encroaching slave trade and the internal drama of the Agojie. Nanisca’s intuition proves to be correct, but a recurring nightmare forces her to wrestle with her own demons, too. The general must consider the weight of her ambitions to become Woman King, a title conferred by Ghezo in the Dahomey tradition, and her past.
As the war with the Oyo deepens, and the fight scenes grow ever more intense, The Woman King digs its heels into familiar dramatic beats, leaning into universal themes of love, community and unambiguous moralism. For a crowd-pleasing epic — think Braveheart with Black women — that combination is more than enough.