Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Premise: Inspired by true events. In nineteenth century Africa, the kingdom of Dahomey is protected by the Agojie, a squad of all-female warriors. The Dahomey face a military threat from the Oyo empire and debate their own participation in the slave trade.
What Works: The Woman King is a work of historical fiction and like a lot of these kinds of films it is a story about heroism and freedom and a society at a turning point. The story primarily unfolds from the point of view of Nawi, a young Dahomey woman who is offered up to the Agojie warriors when she refuses a marriage proposal. The film follows Nawi as she passes through training and joins this sorority of female warriors. This puts her in the orbit of General Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie and counsel to the Dahomey king. Their kingdom is under siege by the rival Oyo empire and both the Dahomey and the Oyo are in the slave trade, supplying fellow Africans to European slavers. The Dahomey leadership debates whether they should continue to participate in the slave trade, knowing that if they break their business arrangement with the Europeans they will be militarily and economically exposed. The film benefits from acknowledging that political complication. It makes The Woman King a little more complex than similar movies. The film also has some interesting characters brought to life by a few impressive performances. Viola Davis plays General Nanisca and she is initially introduced as a hardened warrior but we gradually see a softer side of her character as we learn more about her background. The war between the Dahomey and the Oyo neatly ties into her story. Thuso Mbedu plays Nawi, the young recruit. Mbedu possess a combination of girlish innocence and adult maturity that is effective for her character. Also impressive is Lashana Lynch as Izogie, one of the senior Agojie warriors who instructs the recruits. She’s both a mentor and a soldier and Lynch has a charisma that makes her the most watchable presence in the movie.
What Doesn’t: The Woman King exists within a genre of historical action films that includes Braveheart and Gladiator and The Last Samurai. The Woman King sits comfortably in this company but the picture adheres closely to the conventions of the genre. The story includes a romance between Nawi and a black European man (Jordan Bolger) which never quite fits with the rest of the movie. The love story comes across artificial; it’s been forced onto this story to fulfill a genre convention but doesn’t serve an emotional or thematic point.
Bottom Line: The Woman King is a successful historical action picture. The central performances are quite good and the movie satisfies all of the requisite features of this genre. It doesn’t reinvent this kind of filmmaking but The Woman King does it very well.
Episode: #919 (September 25, 2022)