I’ve waited my entire life to watch a movie like The Woman King. I understand that’s a bold statement. But what I just wrote isn’t hyperbole.
The film takes place in West Africa in the 1800s and centres on an elite unit of female warriors tasked with defending their kingdom. It features a mostly female, mostly black cast, headlined by a 56-year-old Oscar-winner who delivers a badass role for the ages.
Hollywood simply doesn’t churn out movies like this.
The Woman King had my heart racing so fast that I left the theatre feeling like I had fallen in love with movies all over again.
The story is set in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey in 1823. Dahomey’s ruthless enemies, the Oyo Empire, have capitalized off the slave trade, exchanging Africans for horses and guns. And now, Dahomey finds itself between a rock and a hard place. To survive, they made a reluctant arrangement with the slave traders.
But even though Dahomey is outnumbered and outgunned, the new king Ghezo (John Boyega), has a secret weapon: the Agojie. The Agojie are lead by their steel-willed general Nanisca (Viola Davis), a woman who wears her battle scars like fine jewels. A single Agojie soldier can take down an entire enemy squad with the ease of LeBron James dunking on a pre-schooler.
The story centres on a defiant young woman named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) who joins the Agojie after refusing to marry an abusive man. Nawi thrives during the intense training process as she butts heads with Nanisca. Nawi proves herself as a skilled warrior while questioning Agojie traditions.
With Dahomey on the brink of war, Nanisca must train Nawi’s generation of soldiers before slave traders, and the Oyo, mobilize to wipe them out.
Every time a new Gina Prince-Bythewood film drops, I stop what I’m doing and watch it right away. Nobody wrenches every last drop of heart and soul from a script quite like she does. Everybody talks about her most beloved film, Love & Basketball, but her slept-on gem Beyond the Lights packs just as much heart.
Most recently, Prince-Bythewood tackled a couple of comic book adaptations. Cloak & Dagger and The Old Guard subverted exhausted comic book tropes, transforming the material into something beautiful and unique. They’re worth checking out even if you don’t enjoy superhero movies and TV series.
What makes this director’s work special is how she painstakingly crafts little details that highlight each character’s humanity. Her characters feel like living, breathing people, and the worlds they inhabit brim with life.
It’s clear that this filmmaker is in top form right now, and The Woman King is the rare action drama that delivers both the sizzle and the steak.
Prince-Bythewood packs this epic action flick with tense drama, thrilling set pieces, and outstanding performances. But again, the reason this action works like gangbusters is that she never glosses over the tiny details that enrich the story. She takes her time setting the stakes, developing an intriguing world, and populating it with characters you actually give a damn about.
What separates this movie from most other action flicks is how violence impacts the characters. You see the emotional toll weighing on the Agojie whenever the fighting ends. When someone dies in battle, the women don’t behave like soulless Terminators. Prince-Bythewood inserts shots of soldiers grieving the fallen. It’s a small but telling detail that adds emotional texture to the story.
The director really honed her action chops while shooting The Old Guard. That film’s complicated fight choreography, tight camera work, and sharp editing impressed me (and I’m an action choreography snob). She’s only levelled up since then. The Woman King’s action sequences are a sight to behold. And they’re more impressive than what passes for action in most comic book movies with triple this movie’s budget.
The producers of this mid-budget action film really know how to stretch a buck. Every aspect of the production is on point. Gersha Phillips’ stunning costumes bring Dahomey to life in vivid detail. Polly Morgan’s gorgeous cinematography took my breath away more than a few times. And it’s all elevated by the serene sounds of Terence Blanchard’s signature horns. Every aspect of the production comes together to form a masterfully crafted crowd-pleaser.
On paper, The Woman King is a historical war movie spotlighting violence and injustice. But in reality, the film is so much more than that. It showcases Africa’s proud history and celebrates Black excellence. This slavery-era historical drama also refuses to be defined by Black trauma. Prince-Bythewood seasons this delectable cinematic feast with moments of beauty, joy, and kinship.
As a lifelong cinephile, I grew up worshipping the stories I saw on the silver screen. As a little black boy, Peter Venkman, Marty McFly, and Indiana Jones were my movie royalty. I’ve spent my whole life waiting to add Nawi and the Agojie to my list of cinematic heroes. So it fills my heart with joy to proclaim there’s a new king in town, and her name is Nanisca.
The Woman King screens as a part of TIFF 2022, which runs from September 8 to 18. Head here for more from the festival.