Gina Prince-Bythewood directs an impressive all-star cast in The Woman King, a historical epic inspired by the true story of the Agojie, a powerful female army in Dahomey.
Skill and artistry are involved when adapting a true story for the big screen. Balancing spectacle and fact is no easy feat, and perhaps that why’s Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film The Woman King has been subject to a lot of criticism.
I can’t say I know enough about the history of Dahomey, a kingdom in West Africa in the 18th century, to evaluate just how accurate or inaccurate Prince-Bythewood’s film is. I can only speak for how she builds tension, character relations and how entertaining The Woman King is. Spoiler alert: it’s very entertaining.
Set in 1823, the Kingdom of Dahomey has a new king Ghezo (John Boyega), a much more progressive man than any king before him. The Agojie protects his kingdom, a fierce army made of the strongest female soldiers in the land.
The Agojie are led by Nanisca (Viola Davis), but her life is complicated as one of the recruits (Thuso Mbedu) turns out to be stubborn and rebellious. The Oyo empire is also closing in, and Nanisca wants to convince the new king to abandon their part in the slave trade.
The Woman King is thoroughly thrilling. It works remarkably well as an action film with a side of politics and history. Again, I can’t in good conscience comment on how accurately it depicts Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade, which seems to be the most common complaint I’ve encountered. Still, as a fictional thrill fest, The Woman King delivers. The action sequences are breathtaking and sensational, and the plot around them is just as gripping.
Viola Davis, as expected, is incredible. Watching her feels like watching an actress at the height of their power and talent. Her Nanisca is ruthless and uncompromising, but Davis also allows us to see underneath that surface that often cracks as she faces difficult decisions.
Of the supporting cast, all of whom are excellent, Lashana Lynch leaves the biggest impression. Her Izogie is warm, funny and strong. The young trio of performers – Mbedu, Adrienne Warren and Masali Baduza – have great chemistry, but their characters are mainly unexplored.
The most prominent narrative fumble is a spoiler-y one, but one that requires at least a quick note. The entire premise is built upon this almost fantastical army of women who are independent and not reliant on men. They are sisters, not wives or mothers, but towards the end, the narrative increasingly tries to fit these elements into the already packed plot. And for what? The Woman King gains nothing by inserting a silly romantic subplot into its eclectic mix of action and politics.
Prince-Bythewood directs The Woman King with flair and vision. Her previous film, Netflix’s The Old Guard, was a frustrating and dull superhero flick with nothing to say. Here, Prince-Bythewood seems more in her element, and The Woman King runs so smoothly you barely notice the runtime, which is a little on the long side at over two hours.
I would have gladly spent another hour in Dahomey with these women. It is a pleasure and a privilege to see a performance like Davis’s in a film like this. The Woman King is a rare delicacy in an age where superhero sequels and cinematic universes dominate screens, small and large. Prince-Bythewood’s achievement is urgent, brilliant filmmaking and Davis’s performance is bound to become iconic.
The Woman King is in cinemas on October 7.