We’ve become so conditioned by years of watching men fight men onscreen—jabbing with spears, blamming with guns, high-kicking the daylights out of each other with a mighty oof—that, the Amazons of the Wonder Woman movies notwithstanding, it’s a novelty to see women going at it. That’s just one of the pleasures of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s history-based adventure epic The Woman King, starring Viola Davis as the general of an all-woman army. The setting is the real-life West African kingdom of 19th century Dahomey, which boasted a fearsome female military force known as the Agojie. Though screenwriter Dana Stevens, working from a story by Maria Bello, has taken some liberties with historical facts, these warrior women really did exist, and as depicted in the movie, Dahomey did traffic slaves, selling its captives of war to European slave traders, thus bulking up its riches and bolstering its power. But if the film’s historical underpinnings are fascinating, it works beautifully on a mythical level as well: it’s exhilarating to watch these women fighting possibly even more fearlessly than men do, even as they navigate the complications of living within their own close-knit society. This is an action spectacle with a beating heart.
Davis plays Nanisca, and our first glimpse of her and her troops in the opening scene is a magnificent one: as they’re set to attack an enemy encampment, Nanisca rises from a field of grassy cover, her eyes resolute as a tiger’s; the other women pop up around her, silently, though you can almost hear their nerves whirring. The battle sequence that follows is sharp and concise, a cyclone of sinewy limbs and blazing machetes that’s part stylized interpretive dance, part traditional fight choreography. Just to watch these women move is galvanizing.
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The mechanics of the story are rooted in the complexities of West African history: A new king of Dahomey, Ghezo (John Boyega), has ascended the throne, and he and his general Nanisca, whom he respects more than anyone in his kingdom, seek to break from the powerful Oyo Empire, to which Dahomey has long paid tribute. Both the Oyo and the Dahomey feed the slave trade to some degree, a reality that doesn’t sit well with Nanisca: She’s ambitious—she aspires to be named the Woman King, an honor that Ghezo has the power to bestow on her. But she also urges Ghezo to find ways beyond slave trafficking to enrich his kingdom—she believes the export of palm oil could be the answer.
Yet as wise and respected Nanisca she is, she’s plagued by personal demons that she has kept secret from nearly every one of her sister soldiers. The arrival of a ball-of-fire new recruit, Nawi (played, wonderfully, by Thuso Mbedu, of The Underground Railroad), rattles her composure further. Davis, unsurprisingly, is terrific at balancing Nanisca’s blazing confidence with her gnawing self-doubt, though another actor comes close to stealing the show: As Izogie, the soldier in charge of training the young aspiring warriors, Lashana Lynch doesn’t so much stride through the movie as whirl her way through it, often on a cloud of wit. Her heavy eyebrows frame her mischievous eyes like a hovering cloud; she’s like a gorgeous, Amazonian Groucho. In a scene where she explains to Nawi how she strives to find just the right stone to sharpen her machete, she also proffers her magnificently pointed talons as an auxiliary weapon, excellent for plucking out eyeballs. Nawi is deeply impressed, even as she flinches. This is a manicure you don’t want to mess with.
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There’s a great deal of pageantry and glamor in the costumes and production design, courtesy of Gersha Phillips and Akin McKenzie: The warriors wear dazzling stripey tunics; fierce-looking tailored cuffs curl around their ears. The palace courtyards, where the women learn to fight, are a rich playground of sandy reds and golds. Shot by Polly Morgan, the movie has a fanciful, imaginative look rather than a stolidly historical one, though it’s easy enough to imagine these women, en masse, as real human beings who lived and breathed in another time and place.
The Woman King is also further proof, if you need it, of Prince-Bythewood’s sterling instincts. One of the great things about movies as we near the second quarter of the 21st century is that people are finally hip to her skills as a filmmaker. She’s made superb dramas about what it means to be an ambitious woman in the world, like the 2000 Love and Basketball, now rightly considered a classic, as well as the marvelous 2014 meditation on stardom and power Beyond the Lights. It’s only recently that mainstream audiences have stopped to consider what it means to be a Black woman trying to get a movie made; Prince-Bythewood has been living that fight for more than two decades. It’s fitting that she’s made a movie about literal women warriors, after years of getting the job done and doing it right, while so many people were looking the other way.
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