“The Woman King” is a Fierce Crowd Pleaser

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest movie delivers thrills and warmth in equal measure

“The Woman King,” directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, is set in the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the early 19th century, home to the fearsome all-woman army, the Agojie. After refusing to take a much older, abusive husband, a young girl named Nawi played by Thuso Mbedu is casted out by her family, and taken in by the Agojie to be trained and put to the test. There she meets the uncompromising General Nanisca, played by Viola Davis, who pushes Nawi and the other recruits to become strong enough to take down the enemy Oyo empire.


Historical (or in this case, slightly historical) movies are no stranger to legendary warriors. From “Spartacus” to “The Last of the Mohicans,” we’ve seen plenty of unlikely heroes rise to the occasion. “The Woman King” is no exception. Nawi’s journey from novice to Agojie warrior has all the trappings of a classic hero’s journey. But in Prince-Bythewood’s hands, it feels fresh and totally engrossing.

The movie’s greatest asset is its star studded and equally talented cast. To absolutely no one’s surprise, Viola Davis is fantastic as General Nanisca. Her quiet intensity off the battlefield colors her past with pain and wisdom. As she keeps an eye on the sometimes headstrong Nawi, she is forced to reflect on her own troubled relationship with the slave-trading Oyo empire.


Thuso Mbedu, best known for leading Barry Jenkins’ limited series, “The Underground Railroad,” is no less engaging. Her interpretation of Nawi makes her feel both extraordinarily strong-willed and understandably flawed. It can be a challenge to play the role of the straight-down-the-middle hero, but Mbedu succeeds with charm and ferocity.


Rounding out the cast are Lashana Lynch as the experienced Agojie, Igozie, whose raw charisma is infectious, Sheila Atim as Nanisca’s right-hand woman, Amenza, bringing warmth and stability to the warriors. The film also features John Boyega as King Ghezo, doing some of his best work since Steve McQueen’s film series, “Small Axe.” It’s easy to fall in love with these characters. By the end you’ll feel like you’ve known them for years.


The movie doesn’t shy away from discussions of misogyny, sexual assault, and imperialism. But rather than feeling didactic or stale, each issue is dealt with via an emotional connection, a conduit through which all of us understand these topics. Nanisca lives with a history of assault, Nawi escapes a dangerous domestic environment, and a half-Dahomey half-Portuguese character named Malik struggles with a multiracial identity, at the center of which is the slave trade. It is a credit to Prince-Bythewood’s skill as a storyteller that all of these sociological elements flow naturally from the characters.


The only element that feels more haphazard is the cinematography in certain action sequences. The Agojie fight with spears, knives, and other handheld weapons, all of which call for close combat. With the often erratic pace of the editing in some action scenes, we lose some of the impressive choreography and even some minor story beats. This over-editing was also an issue of Prince-Bythewood’s last movie, “The Old Guard,” starring Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne. While not totally off-putting, it leaves you wanting more.


“The Woman King” is a genuine crowd pleaser of a movie. With lovable characters and brutal thrills, it’s not difficult to imagine this becoming a hit even beyond theaters. It’s a real treat to be swept up in a totally different time and culture, and this movie undoubtedly delivers. Gina Prince-Bythewood has made a genuinely intelligent and consistently entertaining movie.

Facebook Comments