“Yes!” someone in the theater said with particular oomph at the moment Viola Davis’ Nansica emerged from the shadows in the opening scene of The Woman King from director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball). And you know what? They weren’t wrong. From the instant Davis appears onscreen, it’s clear her character is a badass, and if recent interviews with the star of Fences and Suicide Squad are to be believed, the training to get there was no joke. Perhaps we’ve never seen Davis in this light before, but she’s so splendidly comfortable (and tough) in the new historical epic that we roll with it and straight up believe she’d chop some heads if the situation called for it.
The Woman King dramatizes the powerful cadre known as the Agojie, a real-life, woman-fronted force of elite warriors who operated in Dahomey (a region in what we know today as the African nation of Benin) during the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the ficitonalized Nanisca (Davis), their leader. I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of them until this film, but their imprint upon history and pop culture—Black Panther’s Dora Milaje, anyone?—is unmistakable. Here, however, Prince-Bythewood and, unexpectedly, actress Maria Bello, who garners story-by and producer credits for her contributions, delve not only into the Agojie’s fierce fighting methodology, but the socio-political goings-on of the African region at the time and the untenable conditions it fostered for women who didn’t wield swords.
In short, a contested trade port in Dahomey becomes vital territory for warring factions, as well as Brazilian slavers, leading to an all-out confrontation between various forces.
Davis is unquestionably ferocious as the long-fighting Nanisca, too, but her inner-circle of -fellow warriors seal the deal. Captain Marvel alumna Lashana Lynch, for example, cuts a satisfying swath of kick-assery that is tempered by her character’s humanity and humor—a surprising but dimensional addition that not only offers levity but a valuable lesson: “It is better to laugh,” she advises when describing a particularly painful encounter in her youth. Amen, sister. Dr. Strange’s Shelia Atim is similarly noteworthy in her vulnerable portrayal of the one woman who might question Nanisca—and who does cool spear attacks and acrobatic takedowns and such.
Even so, the core of the story centers on the relationship between Nanisca and Nawi (Thuso Mbedu, Scandal!). The latter joins the Agojie after a non-starter arranged marriage attempt with an abusive landowner, and there’s something in the training montage about finding out who you really are. Mbedu represents some real interesting character development that winds up unfortunately lost in the shuffle. The Woman King features so many subplots and side characters, in fact, that one starts to lose the central thread. In quieter moments when John Boyega (Star Wars), who plays the Dahomey king, appears onscreen with Davis, or when the Agojie speak openly and plainly amongst each other, it soars. In adding so many smaller things to flesh out the world, its makers confuse the narrative. Still, when’s the last time you saw a mainstream film wherein just about everyone onscreen was a Black woman. Almost never? Cool. Oh, wait, no; it’s that other thing: Bogus. See The Woman King to learn, and because it’s fun; even if, solely as a film, it’s not the best thing to ever come out.
+Viola Davis forever; fascinating and lesser-known history
-Cluttered; PG-13 rating minimizes intensity
The Woman King
Directed by Prince-Bythewood
With Davis, Mbedu, Lynch, Atim and Boyega
Violet Crown, Regal, R, 135 min.