In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Kingdom of Dahomey was one of the most powerful states of Africa in existence. The Woman King follows the incredible journey of Dahomey warriors called the Agojie, an all-female group of soldiers who protected Dahomey with strength, skills, and a fierceness unlike anything the world has ever seen. Leading this unit is General Nanisca (Viola Davis), a fearless leader with a dark past of her own. But to train and ready the next generation of recruits for battle, she must put aside all doubts and unleash her tenacious will and might. The Agojie will need it to protect their kingdom from a hungry enemy that seeks to destroy their enriching way of life.
Gina Prince-Bythewood returns to the director’s chair to visualize Dana Stevens and Maria Bello’s story of courage and fearlessness on the big screen. The Woman King contains endless achievements that will captivate audiences from the moment the first sequence commences. Throughout Stevens’ screenplay, viewers can expect an inspiring showcase of strength and sincerity that Prince-Bythewood appropriately brings to life on screen. Her latest feature is mesmerizing with a magnetic pull and ability to fully captivate with such delicacy and passion with one that is based on true events. It has been many Black and/or African women’s dream to see such beautiful depiction of us onscreen, and Gina does not disappoint whatsoever.
There’s a certain tenderness yet mightiness with which director Prince-Bythewood choses to frame the story visually. Her exceptional direction enables an experience that is as emotionally invigorating as it is empowering and inspirational. With cinematographer Polly Morgan’s nice photography, these talented ladies capture beautiful Black skin in a way that is not only appropriate but uplifting for anyone who has ever doubted the beauty of their dark skin. That is what representation is all about. And The Woman King fully embraces its responsibility while also delivering the clear message that African and Black women are as impressive as their counterparts on screen.
The Woman King fully embraces its responsibility
As the plot progresses and viewers come to understand the necessity of the Agojie, screenwriter Stevens ensures appropriate character development for the two leads while still devoting enough attention to the horrors of the slave trade and the results thereof. What’s especially important to highlight here is the delivery of this narrative. Prince-Bythewood’s ability to shed light on such an ugly truth while also maintaining a sense of duty to her core audience is not to be overlooked. In partnership with editor Terilyn A. Shropshire, she refuses to give into the Black trauma trope that many filmmakers have often settled for and instead opts for subtlety, which will be appreciated by many.
With that being said, in its representation of historical facts, The Woman King may not be on target. Truth be told, there are some questionable choices that will lead some to ask about the reality presented. However, I think the film does a great job of feeding its audience what it needs. Essentially, this is the kind of effort that will encourage viewers to immediately walk out of the feature to educate themselves of the history. As a result of this context, The Woman King comes off sincere, yet it doesn’t hide in realizing itself as an engaging body of work determined not only to motivate but to entertain people of all kinds.
The Ensemble of the Year
There’s something to be said about reliable actors or actresses, and The Woman King is full of them. It feels as though Viola Davis, as Nanisca, unlocks a new dimension to her exceptional acting skills. And while audiences will already expect this from Davis, they will be treated to an incredible emotional journey with the Oscar-winning actress. The supporting cast also slays in Prince-Bythewood’s warrior epic with South-African actress Thuso Mbedu as the heart and soul of the story. If The Underground Railroad was her “coming-out party,” then it’s definitely time to roll out the red carpet for this star and to campaign for her involvement in many future projects.
Sheila Atim and Lashana Lynch are also standouts, leading the pack of warriors with bravery and contributing to the remarkable chemistry of the cast. They also lead the cast in delivering some unsuspecting funny moments. In a film about the slave trade and war, one might question and infer that the incorporation of humor would only lead to tonal imbalances throughout. Yet, these moments are natural and only add to the overall enjoyment of the movie. Lastly, John Boyega is fierce as King Ghezo. While reliable in just about everything he’s in, Boyega demands a new-found respect when it comes to his skills as an actor, and it’s incredibly earned. This is truly the ensemble of the year.
If there’s one thing that is true of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s gripping tale of female empowerment and sisterhood, it’s that it boasts overwhelming amounts of achievements. The costuming and makeup throughout The Woman King are award-worthy. The designs accentuate every beautiful dark person whether they are directly under sunlight or lathered in oil, glistening under the bright light of the moon. These elements are cause for celebration. And it’s about time that Hollywood not only sees this type of representation on screen but recognize it as the norm as well. Terence Blanchard’s score is also a standout. His music is exactly what one would expect in a movie like this: moving, inspiring, gripping, and raw.
In her action-packed and unrelenting display of fierceness among a group of warriors, Prince-Bythewood gifted viewers a chance to fully immerse themselves in a story rich with culture, powerful sequences, and emotion. Run, don’t walk, to the theaters to catch The Woman King on the largest screen possible. It’s sincere, it’s crowd-pleasing, and it’s exactly what we need right now. Best of all, this is a gift to every person who’s ever felt–at any moment in their lives–shame regarding their dark skin. Yet, this feature serves as a triumphant inspiration for all.
Check out the trailer for The Woman King below — in theaters Friday, Sept. 16, 2022: