In the 1820s, the West African kingdom of Dahomey had an elite group of all-female warriors known as the Agojie, or the ‘Dahomey Amazons’ as the Wikipedia entry reads. The Woman King is a fictionalized (I assume heavily) tale of these powerful fighters taking on enemy states and European slavers with brutal efficiency. They are led by General Nanisca, played by Viola Davis with the intensity only she can bring. The Woman King is best seen with a roaring crowd ready to watch Davis and the rest of the Agojie take no prisoners and wage their bloody battles on the biggest screen possible.
Gina Prince-Bythewood of Love & Basketball fame helms this picture (which has a story credit by Maria Bello??). She learned of the history of the Agojie when visiting Benin and decided it needed to be told on the big screen. Obsessed with that! Anyway, as anyone who watched The Old Guard and said “Wow, this isn’t terrible” knows that Prince-Bythewood can direct a dynamic action sequence. Despite being PG-13, you really do feel the violence. Every hit, every beheading, every bullet fired is a dramatic moment with consequence. Viola Davis is of course incredible, as are Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim (an unbelievably stunning human being… her bone structure!) as Nanisca’s devoted lieutenants. Though nothing is made explicit, Atim’s character Amenza seems like more than a work friend to Nanisca. Their private conversations are charged with intimacy, especially when the past starts to come back to haunt them. Thuso Mbedu, star of Barry Jenkins’ underseen miniseries The Underground Railroad, is the perfect POV character to follow into this warrior clan. She manages to match up with Davis’ fury, a remarkable feat. Though he does not involve himself in the bloodshed, John Boyega is great as the King of Dahomey, trying to lead while keeping the Agojie from being too reckless. The only real false notes in the cast come in the form of the Europeans, so we don’t have to worry about that.
The film moves at a breakneck pace as new recruit Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) starts her training and is soon embroiled in the greater conflict between Dahomey and all who seek to destroy it. There’s less palace intrigue than I expected – a thread of dissatisfaction with one of the king’s wives never really goes anywhere – but how can I complain when we just constantly get to watch these warriors obliterate slave traders for two hours? I’m not going to pretend I know anything about this particular moment in history; I just think this is a spectacularly entertaining piece of filmmaking. I’d certainly love to learn more about Dahomey, but I don’t need an adult blockbuster to get bogged down in facts. No one makes a “he’s standing right behind me” joke that totally deflates all tension, which is a victory in its own right. The Woman King is a serious film about control, the brutality of man, and what we can do to fight back. Plus, Viola Davis whips a sword around on a chain and takes off a few heads. Who says we can’t have it all?
The Woman King
Dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood
In theaters Friday 9/16