The Woman King
Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Jordan Bolger, Hero Fiennes Tiffin
There’s much to enjoy about “The Woman King” and even more to celebrate. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s big studio, semi-historical epic, is full of exciting roles, characters, and colors. Oscar winner Viola Davis (“Fences,” “Suicide Squad”) steps onto the screen as head of an elite group of warriors, and it’s one of her finest moments. All the power, rage, physicality, and strength are present in her stance and attitude, all before she speaks her first line. Davis’ presence dominates this production, as she usually does. “The Woman King” has a stellar cast of newcomers, rising stars, and fan favorites like John Boyega (“Star Wars”). The fictional aspects of the script affect the historical presentation, often veering into Disney-like territory. The rousing nature of the film, intended to play for big crowds on big screens, overcome the few questionable choices.
Dahomey, one of Africa’s most powerful and thriving kingdoms, is uniquely protected by a fierce group of female warriors. Two outside threats challenge Dahomey’s way of life: the white man’s ever-growing profiteering from slavery and opposing tribes working with the Europeans for trade. King Ghezo (Boyega) trusts his commander Nanisca (Davis) to keep his kingdom and their people safe. “To be a warrior, you must kill your tears.” A young girl named Nawi (Mbedu) is dropped off at the palace gates, abandoned by her father for her refusal to marry. She is recruited by the Dahomey Amazons, as the Europeans referred to them, and will face grueling strength tests before she can become one of the warriors.
From the magnetic costumes to the color pallet of the sets, it’s a feast for the eyes.
When Prince-Bythewood’s film, written by actress Maria Bello and Dana Stevens, leads with the history of the time, “The Woman King” soars. From the magnetic costumes to the color pallet of the sets, it’s a feast for the eyes. There is, however, an unnecessary subplot featuring a “shark’s tooth” that attempts to undermine the film’s strength. You could remove the shark’s tooth subplot without spoiling anything, and the story would work the same. Most of the film’s vital moments toggle between the women training the girls and the battlefield sequences. Lashana Lynch (“No Time to Die”) is exceptional, balancing strength and comedy as she prepares Nawi. Newcomer Mbedu has the enormous task of holding her own against co-lead Davis as their character’s life experiences clash.
Move over, boys, there is a new type of action film. Understandably, “The Woman King” skirts around much of the violence to keep the film family-friendly. Yet, for fans of this type of action, the intense fight scenes won’t match the bloodless aftermath. Prince-Bythewood exercises more emphasis on crowd-pleasing than historical accuracy. Many of the scenes felt borrowed from other mainstream films and recalibrated to fit the needs of this one. The gender roles of the characters and the cast’s diversity are fresh and new, but the plot is not.
Viola Davis and the cast overpower the film’s shortcomings to deliver a crowd-pleasing, new type of historical war epic.