The Woman King – Film Review
Cast: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Synopsis: A group of all-female warriors in a West African kingdom seek to protect and defend their lands from enemy outsiders…
Review: The subject of history is an endlessly fascinating one as it enables us to revisit specific periods of the past and learn about a plethora of different cultures and civilisations that have existed throughout the centuries human life has existed on this planet. Indeed, one of the many wondrous aspects of films is they can shine a spotlight on these civilisations and bring them to life in such a rich, beautiful and meaningful manner. While some societies have been covered more than others, there are others who have not been talked about as much as they should be. This is precisely what this enthralling historical epic from Gina Prince-Bythewood does, by shining a light on an incredibly fierce troop of all-female warriors, the Agojie.
Set in the Kingdom of Dahomey, West Africa, General Nanisca (Davis) is the commander of the Agojie, an all-female elite troop of warriors who are sworn to protect the Kingdom from enemy forces that wish to conquer them, most notably the Oyo Empire. Nanisca is seeking capable warriors from the next generation to join this prestigious arm and to prepare their people for the defence of their homeland. Seeking to prove herself worthy to be a part of this elite group of warriors is Nawi (Mbedu) who is determined to prove herself after being shunned by her family for refusing to be married off to suitors chosen by her father. Her ambition and relentless determination capture Nanisca’s and, and Igozie’s (Lynch) attention, the latter of whom resolves to provide Nawi with the tutelage she will need to succeed in her aim to become part of the Agojie and successfully defend their land.
Having a historical epic like this being led by a predominantly black, female cast is a hugely significant moment for these types of big-budget blockbusters, the importance of representation and giving a platform for filmmakers to tell stories from the perspective of these civilisations cannot be overstated. The screenplay from Dana Stevens tackles first and foremost, female empowerment and the sheer intensity and skill of the Agojie on the battlefield. However, it also drives the significance of home, a family and a vibrant community which would enable a new recruit to rise through the ranks and take her place as part of the Agojie, who served as the inspiration for the Dora Milaje from Black Panther. In addition, the film crucially does not shy away from the part the Dahomey Kingdom had in the slave trade.
To be the leader of the kingdom’s all-powerful group of female warriors, you need an actor who brings a commanding screen presence every time she steps in front of a camera. Someone who has the aura of someone you would dare not cross or talk back to, and Viola Davis brings both those qualities in abundance. Nanisca is the exact sort of leader you want to have on the front line of the battlefield. However, there is far more to Nanisca’s character than being the commander of the Kingsguard, there’s a very personal element to her story which comes to the fore when she meets Nawi. To be tasked to act alongside a legend of the industry like Davis is far from an easy feat. However, Mbedu rises to the challenge in spectacular fashion, a feat all the more impressive considering this is her feature film debut. Lashana Lynch’s career is going from strength to strength and she gives perhaps the performance of her career thus far, being the warrior to take Nawi under her wing and offer invaluable advice, while John Boyega is the perfect combination of gravitas and a surprising amount of humour with his role as King Ghezo.
Through all of the moving exploration of the community of the Agojie and the powerful bond between all of these amazing and brave warriors, under Prince-Bythewood’s soaring direction, the battle scenes are immaculately helmed and enthralling to watch. There is one minor side plot with a romance between Nawi and a man who is travelling with a group of slave traders which is not properly developed and could have easily been cut out from the final cut, but it is not enough to drag the film down. Historical epics have rarely been told from the perspectives of black women, and showcasing these extraordinary warriors deserves to be celebrated and championed.
Through its extraordinary ensemble cast, led by Viola Davis, The Woman King delivers emotionally resonant themes of female empowerment combined with enthralling action scenes that will have you bowing down in awe.