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‘The Woman King’ Review: Viola Davis Shines in Triumphant Historical Epic

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Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” wastes no time in assuring its audience that the next two hours will be far from dull, instead dropping viewers directly into the center of one of many suspenseful battle sequences. A band of women brandishing blades emerge stealthily from the brush in the dead of night to ambush a group of men who have taken their people as prisoners. What follows is a furious few minutes of gritty, high-octane battle that not only set the tone for the rest of the electrifying blockbuster, but also articulates the film’s most important assertion: its belief in the endless skill, heroism, and capability of Black women. Indeed, “The Woman King”’s cultural significance as an unprecedented entry into the historical action genre is perhaps just as epic as the story it tells.

Set in the 1820s, “The Woman King” tells the story of the Agojie — the all-female military regiment who protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey between the 17th and 19th centuries — as they contend with a plethora of personal challenges and menacing antagonistic forces. The ever-brilliant Viola Davis stars as General Nanisca, a stern and diplomatic leader who must train a new generation of warriors to fight an enemy that threatens the kingdom’s liberty and way of life. Among this new class of Agojie prospectives is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a headstrong 19-year-old with a turbulent past.

Having shirked her family’s attempts to marry her off for money, Nawi is dropped by her father at the doorstep of arrogant young monarch King Ghezo (John Boyega). Within the palace walls, Nawi’s interest is immediately piqued by the Agojie’s training grounds, and she becomes set on joining the force — and becoming the best warrior of her age. “The Woman King” takes care in exploring the bonds of sisterhood and solidarity that exist between different members of the Agojie — a definitive highlight of the film that allows its already-strong cast to shine. Nawi finds acceptance and understanding in her new sisters, including the swaggering Igozie (a fantastically charismatic Lashana Lynch). The devoted bond between Nanisca and her best friend Amenza (Sheila Atim) is similarly moving

We soon learn that the true emotional core of the film, however, is the complicated dynamic between Nanisca and Nawi, which unfolds throughout the film to a touching and satisfying end. Davis’s stirring performance gradually chips away at the many layers of the no-nonsense general, imbuing Nanisca’s steely affectations with a genuine pathos.

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Indeed, “The Woman King” is an epic about strong Black women, but it tactfully avoids the pitfalls of a cultural trope that assumes Black women to be necessarily invulnerable or overly-stoic beings. Instead, the film allows its characters to be dynamic and fairly multifaceted: The physical strength and emotional resilience of these women does not negate their ability to be vulnerable or their need to take care of one another, as much as their occupation and social context may demand apathy and hardness. At one point, Nanisca tells Nawi that “to be a warrior, you must kill your tears.” But the film is at its strongest when exploring how emotion — and addressing, rather than suppressing, one’s pain — can be a source of strength.

But although the Agojie are revered and respected by their community, the inherent structural violence of patriarchy is still very much alive. Unsurprisingly, the society that the Agojie protects so fiercely does not necessarily protect them back. In this way, the women’s triumphs over political enemies and oppressors (and their attempts to liberate other women who have been captured or harmed) are personally cathartic for each of these women. Even if the film’s script — written by Dana Stevens and based on a story she wrote in collaboration with Mia Bello — might have approached some of its complex historical themes with greater nuance, “The Woman King” nevertheless offers a handful of compelling and undoubtedly important characters.

“The Woman King” successfully embeds narratives of personal trauma and conflict within larger systems of oppression, as the specters of slavery and European colonization loom large over the Dahomey kingdom. The existing threat of the rival Oyo Empire is compounded by the arrival of Portuguese slave trader Santo (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), who is accompanied by Malik (Jordan Bolger), a mixed-race Brazilian merchant whose mother hailed from the Dahomey kingdom. Nanisca confronts King Ghezo about the immorality of his continued participation in the slave trade, selling Dahomey individuals to the Portuguese; she suggests that the kingdom trade in palm oil production instead. This continued conflict — and Nanisca’s insistence that the Dahomey Kingdom see the humanity in even those it captures — elevates the film’s battle scenes beyond mere spectacle: The grave stakes of these battles are felt in each electrifying frame.

Perhaps the primary area in which the film stumbles is its inclusion of a few particularly unconvincing narrative elements — the principal offender being a forbidden budding romance between Malik and Nawi. Although Malik’s racial identity — and the position of simultaneous privilege and disadvantage he thus occupies — makes him an interesting character on paper, the way in which he is utilized feels at once trite and troubling. Indeed, the film’s decision, however noncommittal, to explore an attraction between Malik and Nawi feels like a slightly sanitized take on a tired trope that pairs women of color with their oppressors, usually white men. Furthermore, the two characters’ connection ultimately rings hollow when measured against the several more compelling relationships presented onscreen, flying in the face of the other models of fulfillment and interpersonal connection the film begins to articulate. Indeed, screen time spent with Malik might have been put to better use further fleshing out the film’s key players and character dynamics.

But even this disappointing narrative thread cannot spoil what is, at its core, a visually captivating and supremely exciting action picture. Polly Morgan’s sweeping cinematography is enhanced by arresting production design and gorgeous costumes and makeup that add striking depth and texture to both the palace and battlefield. The film’s lighting, rich color palette, and use of natural landscapes come together nicely to produce many impressive visuals that further elevate numerous rousing, expertly-choreographed battle sequences. Furthermore, Terence Blanchard’s appropriately epic score is punctuated by several scenes that feature traditional song and dance — in this way, “The Woman King” brings to the big screen an exuberant celebration of West African culture that is thoroughly enjoyable to witness.

Both thoughtful and undeniably entertaining, “The Woman King” breathes new life into the studio action film. It’s also a welcome departure from most studios’ usual fare; namely, an endless slate of remakes, reboots, prequels, sequels. Most importantly, however, it carves out a space for histories and identities who have been long overlooked by blockbusters of this scope, placing Black women front and center — never on the sidelines.

—Staff writer Jamila O’Hara can be reached at jamila.o’hara@thecrimson.com

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