Viola Davis heads an excellent cast in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s exhilarating action movie.
Gina Prince-Bythewood is indisputably one of the most interesting directors working in Hollywood today. Since breaking out with the hit sports romance Love & Basketball, her work has ranged from intimate family dramas and love stories (The Secret Life of Bees, Beyond the Lights) to action-packed superhero movies (The Old Guard). It took Prince-Bythewood seven years to bring her new film, The Woman King, to the screen. Epic, thrilling, and jam-packed with delightful character beats, The Woman King understandably feels like the culmination of Prince-Bythewood’s work so far. As masterful at shooting stunning fight sequences as she is wringing emotions from intimate dialogue scenes, Prince-Bythewood delivers a crowd-pleaser for the ages.
The Woman King, which opens with an explanatory text crawl, is set in the 1820s and tells the story of the Agojie, a band of elite female warriors who protect the king of Dahomey. Prince-Bythewood was inspired to create the film while visiting Benin, where Dahomey was located. Most Americans are probably not familiar with the Agojie, but it’s immediately apparent that these are the real-life women who inspired the inclusion of the Dora Milaje guard in Marvel’s Black Panther.
The movie crackles with energy from the first moment the Agojie appears, creeping silently out of the grass before destroying a band of slavers with machetes. The Woman King easily boasts some of the best fight choreography of the 21st century. The film’s fight sequences push the PG-13 rating to its absolute limits, as the women draw blood with knives, guns, spears, ropes, explosives, and even sharpened fingernails. Prince-Bythewood avoids the pitfalls many recent superhero movies have fallen into, and all the battles are as easy to visually follow as they are exhilarating. Cheering and clapping could frequently be heard in this reviewer’s advance screening. Just when you think the Agojie can’t possibly top themselves, they kick it up another level.
The Woman King’s script, written by Dana Stevens and Maria Bello, is ultimately secondary to the exquisite action scenes, but it gets the job done. It’s genuinely hard to go amiss when a film boasts a cast as superb as this one. Legendary performer Viola Davis plays General Nanisca, the Agojie’s leader and a trusted advisor to King Ghezo (John Boyega). Ghezo, who seized power during a military coup Nanisca helped spearhead, has decided to appoint a traditional Dahomean Woman King to rule alongside him, not as a romantic partner but as a fellow head of state. Nanisca longs to step into the role and use her newfound power to end the slave trade in Dahomey, where Ghezo’s subjects have been selling other West Africans from enemy tribes to European slave traders and narrowly avoiding capture themselves.
Davis is in top form here, unsurprisingly making Nanisca’s bonafides as a military leader feel authentic with her towering presence and intense physicality. She brings a sensitive touch to a subplot that is, essentially, a rape-revenge thriller. Thuso Mbedu, the breakout star of Amazon’s underrated miniseries The Underground Railroad, plays high-spirited Nawi, an unwanted girl sent to the palace as a gift for the king. Mbedu bounces off the more world-wearing Davis with aplomb, and it’s a true joy to watch them together as they push each others’ buttons. Boyega also shines as King Ghezo, bringing a touch of dry humor to the role.
Ghezo has a dozen silly wives, chief among them the vain and ambitious Shante (Jayme Lawson), who wants to snatch the title of Woman King for herself. The king and his wives provide some of the best laughs— and best costumes— in the film. It’s exciting to see high-fashion royal looks rooted in African history and culture instead of bland, rote Eurofantasy.
As masterful at shooting stunning fight sequences as she is wringing emotions from intimate dialogue scenes, Prince-Bythewood delivers a crowd-pleaser for the ages.
Across the board, Prince-Bythewood makes clever choices that center on the West African characters’ experiences. When Portuguese slavers are led by Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) and his biracial friend Malik (Jordan Bolger), and their dialogue is subtitled, centering the audience in the perspective of our Black protagonists. For that reason, much of the film’s unremarkable musical score by the usually excellent Terence Blanchard left something to be desired, especially when contrasted with the lively, percussive Dahomean music the characters play and dance to.
But a quibble over music is one of the only nitpicks to make of this excellent, fast-paced film. The two hour and twenty-minute runtime flies by, thanks again to the excellent work of the ensemble. Scene-stealers Lashana Lynch as Izogie, Nawi’s hilarious mentor, and stage actress Sheila Atim as Amenza, Nanisca’s right-hand woman, round out the cast. Both women bring enormous amounts of humor and physical prowess to the table, almost making one wish they were the stars of their own superhero franchise. It’s hard to imagine a more charismatic cast, and the female characters all have chemistry in spades.
The legendary and sweeping scope of the story makes a few late-film plot twists that might have felt clunky in other stories go down smooth. Prince-Bythewood’s flair for romance (no one shoots sexy hand-holding like she does) adds a few lighter touches to the third act, as the stakes grow dire and the body count rises. This movie benefits from having a Black woman director at the helm. The brief sexual violence is captured in an empathetic and thoughtful style. It was also refreshing to see how well-lit even the nighttime battle scenes were since Black actors are often poorly lit compared to their white co-stars in other films.
The Woman King will have you leaving the theater feeling exhilarated. There isn’t a dull moment, and the final battle is edge-of-your-seat, can’t-miss blockbuster fare. It feels rare to see an exciting action epic that isn’t based on a pre-existing franchise or other intellectual property these days. This movie harkens back to classics like Braveheart or The Patriot while simultaneously utilizing a little-seen part of history. It’s a movie that has something for everyone. Prince-Bythewood’s seven-year bet paid off.
The Woman King is now playing in theaters.