Sisterhood, bravery and resilience are all put on action kick-ass display as women fight tooth and nail for their way of life. “The Woman King” is a story of might, force and grit, directed by Gina Prince Bythewood (“Love and Basketball,” “Secret Lives of Bees”), starring Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu as its leads.
Regal as always, Viola Davis provides the movie with its foundation as General Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie, known as the Dahomey Amazons, a unit of women who swear off marriage, men and motherhood to pursue the life of a warrior to defend the kingdom. It’s an impartial society where the king (John Boyega) still possesses a harem of wives who show up throughout the movie in a cloud of lavishly coifed and luxuriously dressed hauteur.
We enter this environment through Nawi (“The Underground Railroad’s” Thuso Mbedu, with another mighty performance against a vast canvas of Black female fighters), an independent-minded, headstrong young woman who refuses her fathers wishes of an arranged marriage, prompting him to drop her off at the Agojie’s palace.
She’s taken under the wing of Izogie (Lashana Lynch, “Captain Marvel” and “No Time to Die”), and trained to undergo a brutal regimen that will eventually admit her into their elite troop of fighters.
Intensity and discipline were trademarks of the Agojie warriors who defended the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 19th century. Their caliber of combat was so unmatched that one of their most unexpected traits often went undetected by their enemies.
The boot camp that follows – which will serve as a source of inspiration for modern-day workout programs – proceeds in concert with preparation for potential war against a rival kingdom, the Oyo Empire. Nanisca warns the King to stop his slave trading, that he’s creating “a dark circle” over their lands.
The action scenes are visceral, rooted in the laws of physics. During the darkest of night, Prince-Bythewood puts you head first in the battlefield amongst the chaos of the fight. As a viewer you get see these women fly not with wings or capes or magic but with swords, javelins, twirling ropes and an occasional gun and long razored fingernails that scoop out enemy eyes, and thighs that crack men like nuts.
Location and Costumes
Shot in South Africa, the film bridges that gap by opening with a brutal action sequence, demonstrating just how fierce Nanisca and her loyal soldiers can be. Prince-Bythewood shoots and lights these warriors, with their multiple gradations of skin tones, beautifully and attentively.
“They fought with male warriors, so they would disguise themselves and look like men,” costume designer Gershaor Phillips shared from her research for MotionPictures.org. “There are several accounts of people who said when they came through their camp, they couldn’t tell that they were fighting a woman until they captured the person.”
As the film progresses, Nanisca worries that her warriors “do not know an evil is coming,” a tease for the pending battle against the Oyo. But “The Woman King” perhaps excels most in portraying this fascinating subculture given the time and place, playing like a celebration of African traditions while incorporating a decidedly modern tone.
Direction and Score
Prince-Bythewood has accomplished that last goal with a fast paced sheer muscularity of the exercise, with a partnering score from Terence Blanchard’s epic genius. Somehow, the film manages to feel like a throwback to old action movies. If the finish is a bit too busy to be as rousing as intended, by then, “The Woman King” has made the most of its formidable impression.
Before the final fight, Nanisca rallies them together, thundering that they must fight or perish; echoing the mantra that it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees. Black women especially are taught to live on their knees, and part of what makes this “The Woman King” so powerful is how it lays claim to a chapter in history that unravels ideas about gender even if the story is set in the 19th Century is more relevant now than the movie was set.