Without even realizing it, I have come to truly love the works of filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball; Beyond the Lights; The Old Guard), but nothing quite prepared me for her latest work, the visceral, raw The Woman King, a powerful, passionate and angry exercise in reclaiming one’s identity and ending a belief system rooted in the slave trade that causes even a king to think he is something less than human just because he’s been brought up to believe so.
Let me address a couple things before we dive into this. First, although the group of female African warriors known as the Agojie were absolutely real (if you’re wondering what the Dora Milaje in Black Panther were based upon, look no further), there’s nothing in this movie that claims that this particular story is based on fact. It’s actually based on a researched story from writers Maria Bello (yes, that Maria Bello) and Dana Stevens, who ultimately wrote the screenplay, so people concerned about historical accuracy should go watch a documentary or something.
Second, there are others who are complaining about the fact that the film celebrates Africans who sold their own people into slavery (the film is set in the 1800s). The film doesn’t celebrate anything of the kind; also, The Woman King very much deals with this issue with a frankness and critical eye, as it should. Throughout the movie, the king of the African Kingdom of Dahomey, Ghezo (John Boyega), is challenged by those in his realm to stop this practice. He even recalls a traumatic event in his past when his own brother sold his mother into slavery; Ghezo continues the practice because he’s not sure the kingdom will survive and thrive financially if he doesn’t.
But that is just one of the stories about struggle playing out in The Woman King. There’s also the highly emotional tale of General Nanisca (Viola Davis), who heads up the Agojie, the king’s all-female group of warriors who hold training regimens for a new generation of Agojie every so often. At this particular time, the father of a young woman named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) deposits her at the doorstep of the kingdom because she is too independent and will not allow her family to arrange a marriage for her. But rather than make her a part of the next shipment of slaves, she is befriended by two of Nanisca’s lieutenants, Amenza (Sheila Atiro, Bruised and recently seen in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) and Izogie (Lashana Lynch, Captain Marvel and No Time To Die—easily my favorite character in this movie), and they work to train Nawi to join their ranks. But she must pass the ultimate test of skill and endurance, and when I tell you you’ve seen nothing like the action in this movie, that includes this final test sequence.
So much of what makes The Woman King stand out is its abundance of physicality. It’s rare to see characters not covered in sweat, and not just because it’s hot in Dahomey. And it’s not just the women (although it’s mostly them). One of the true villains of the piece is slave-selling general of the rival Oyo empire (Jimmy Odukoya), a hulking figure who commands a room just by stepping into it, and he is intent on taking down the king and his people and profiting mightily by selling them off to slave traders, such as the Portuguese ones who are ever-present and ready to take men and woman back to Europe. A friend of one of these traders (although not an actual trader himself) is Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), a mixed-race free man who is curious about the African journeys his friend goes on frequently and is shocked at the way slaves are gathered up and dehumanized. It doesn’t take long for him to fall for Nawi and become a part of the eventual rebellion against the traders.
The Agojie are forbidden from coupling with the opposite sex, but Nawi has never liked being told what to do, especially when it comes to men. Her movements are under constant observation by Nanisca, who discovers a shocking and unexpected link between the two of them, one that threatens her position in the Agojie and also brings back memories of the worst time in her life. It isn’t that hard to figure out, but Davis plays the discovery as the emotional apex of her character’s entire life, and it’s a rare moment of fragility from a woman who simply cannot be anything or anyone outside her own skin.
As enjoyable as getting caught up in the palace intrigue can be (one of the king’s many wives oversteps her position and causes trouble, for example), it’s watching these warrior women step up and take control that is the highlight of this movie. Rightfully, Nanisca is an equal leader to the king, but the times have changed and having a female co-king, many believe, makes the kingdom look weak. But early on, we figure out that her ascension is on the horizon, if she survives the climactic final battle between the Agojie and the slavers. The Woman King is built of raw power, fire and fearlessness. I’ve truly never experienced anything like it, as it manages to be both intimate and epic while staging some of the finest action sequences you will see this year. We’re nearly nine months into 2022, and I can easily see this one cracking my Top 10 of the year list.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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