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The Woman King

Viola Davis is fierce, formidable and fantastic in this rousing historical epic, which brings the tale of the Agojie, the all-female west African warrior troupe, to the screen.
By Sarah Ward
October 21, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
October 21, 2022
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Since 2016's Suicide Squad, the DC Extended Universe has tasked Viola Davis with corralling super-powered folks, including villains forced to do the state's bidding (as also seen in The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker) and regular world-saving superheroes (the just-released Black Adam). In The Woman King, however, she's more formidable, powerful and magnificent than any spandex-wearing character she's ever shared a frame with — or ever will in that comic-to-screen realm. Here, she plays the dedicated and determined General Nanisca, leader of the Agojie circa 1823. This is an "inspired by true events" tale, and the all-female warrior troupe was very much real, protecting the now-defunct west African kingdom of Dahomey during its existence in what's now modern-day Benin. Suddenly thinking about a different superhero domain and its own redoubtable women-only army, aka the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Dora Milaje in Wakanda? Yes, Black Panther took inspiration from the Agojie.

If you're thinking about Wonder Woman's Amazons, too, the Agojie obviously pre-dates them as well. Links to two huge franchises in various fashions aren't anywhere near The Woman King's main attraction, of course. Davis and her fellow exceptional cast members, such as Lashana Lynch (No Time to Die), Thuso Mbedu and Sheila Atim (both co-stars in The Underground Railroad); The Old Guard filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood and her grand and kinetic direction, especially in fight scenes; stunningly detailed costumes and production design that's both vibrant and textured; a story that still boasts humour and heart: they all rank far higher among this feature's drawcards. So does the fact that this is a lavish historical epic in the Braveheart and Gladiator mould, but about ass-kicking Black women badged "the bloodiest bitches in Africa". Also, while serving up an empowering vision, The Woman King also openly grapples with many difficulties inherent in Dahomey's IRL history (albeit in a mass consumption-friendly, picking-and-choosing manner).

It's under the cover of night that Nanisca and the stealthy, feline-quick Agojie first show The Woman King's audience exactly what they're capable of, as camped-out male slavers from the rival Oyo Empire are swiftly and brutally dispensed with during a mission to free abducted Dahomean women. From that vivid opening, the female-led The Woman King on- and off-screen lets viewers know what it, Davis, Prince-Bythewood and their collaborators are capable of, too. Potent, ferocious, mighty: they all fit. When it comes to the film's protagonist, she's fierceness personified, yet also always nuanced. In a role that'll likely garner her award nominations at the very least, to go along with past Oscar nods for Doubt, The Help and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom — and her win for Fences — Davis is tremendous in the part, in battle and otherwise, exuding world-weariness, raw strength, and the kind of resilience that's only forged by navigating deep horrors.

After the film's initial rescue gambit, the Agojie are down in number. Abandoned to Dahomey's King Ghezo (John Boyega, Small Axe) because she won't marry men who beat her, headstrong Nawi (Mbedu) becomes a new recruit. As the teen trains to become permanently accepted among them, including by the resolute and mischievous Izogie (Lynch) and Amenza (Atim), Nanisca endeavours to bend the ruler's ear about future battles and policies. The Oyo will keep attacking, and keep trying to trade Dahomey's populace into slavery. A Portuguese-Brazilian aristocrat (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, After Ever Happy) knows that he can profit off the Dahomey-Oyo tensions, and gain slaves to hawk along the way. Also, Dahomey itself isn't above selling Africans into subservience themselves. Nanisca has other concerns, too: getting revenge over a heartbreaking chapter of her past, the pain and sacrifice she still bears as a result, and instilling the Agojie's brand of sisterhood in Nawi.

The Woman King's title isn't just another way to say 'queen'. Rather, it's a label given by Dahomey's male leader to the woman he sees as his equal in their lands. His preferred wife Shante (Jayme Lawson, The Batman) wants the designation in a firmly regal sense, but the conventions of storytelling and filmmaking mean there's zero doubt that Nanisca deserves the status. Bestowing the moniker is hardly the chief concern to her, Prince-Bythewood or screenwriter Dana Stevens (Fatherhood) — who also shares a story credit with actress Maria Bello (NCIS) — though. Nanisca is still the force to be reckoned with either way, and a compelling figure worthy of the movie's appreciation. So, in a feature about striving for freedom, fairness, parity, progress and justice, as well as countering misogyny, colonialism and greed, and also surviving trauma, consider that title a reminder about the fight for equality, and how female power is perceived and treated — two centuries ago and also now. 

Slavishly devoted to every single fact, Prince-Bythewood, Stevens and their film aren't. First and foremost, they're committed to their aims, themes and ideas — to being a rousing action flick about the Agojie, primarily; to delving into all that represents; to celebrating strong and skilled women; and to making a movie that truly doesn't otherwise exist — so thinking of its take on the truth as akin to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood's is wise. The Woman King doesn't hide this, given that it finds time for long-lost family connections that could've sprung straight from a soap opera, and for a romance between Nawi and the often-shirtless half-Dahomey slaver associate Malik (Jordan Bolger, Tom & Jerry). When everything else in the movie is so stirring, getting loose with reality and throwing in pure emotion-swelling Hollywood inclusions never drags The Woman King down.

Indeed, not that they have to here, but the phenomenal quartet that is Davis, Lynch, Mbedu and Atim could lift any material. For all the mastery that ripples from Davis, she's in astonishing company, with all three of her key co-stars turning in weighty, resonant and career-cementing portrayals — Lynch with perceptiveness, Mbedu with volatility, and Atim with both wisdom and comfort. Not that they have to either, but Prince-Bythewood, cinematographer Polly Morgan (Where the Crawdads Sing) and the former's regular editor Terilyn A Shropshire (dating right back to 2000's Love & Basketball) could improve any fray-filled picture as well. When it's in full fight mode, with radiant lighting that adores its cast, plus sharp, visceral, muscular and balletic action choreography, The Woman King is not just electrifying but spectacular. That won't be a surprise to fans of The Old Guard, another riveting feature that saw Prince-Bythewood take on a familiar template, give it a female focus and reinvigorate it. That's a warrior's skill, too, and she's terrific at it.

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