The Woman King – Film Review

Big in scale, action and heart, The Woman King is a historical epic unlike anything audiences have seen before.

Inspired by true events and based on a story developed by Dana Stevens and Maria Bello, The Woman King follows an elite all-female warrior unit called the Agojie and their general Nanisca. Directed by Gina Prince-Blythwood, The Woman King cast is stacked with unbelievable presence, with award winners Viola Davis and John Boyega in prime roles.

Loosely based on actual historical events, The Woman King focuses on the kingdom of Dahomey, what is now known as Benin, in 1823 – the height of the slave trade. Dahomey, one of the most powerful nations in West Africa at the time, is on the precipice of war with the Oyo Empire. The young King Ghezo (John Boyega), recently ascendant to the throne through a coup, is protected by the intimidatingly formidable General Nanisca (played by a tougher than ever Viola Davis) and the Agojie, the nation’s incredibly fierce all-female militia.

By Nanisca’s side are her closest warriors; Amenza (Sheila Atim), an elegantly tall and lithe fighter who provides Nanisca with spiritual guidance, and Izogie (Lashana Lynch), a no-nonsense veteran with dreams of becoming the next general. Izogie also serves as a mentor for the Agojie’s new recruits, in particular Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a ‘belligerent’ daughter who was turned in to the palace by her father and who has a unique connection to the Agojie.

The Woman King is not a unique action film in the traditional sense. It follows a classic formula of a simple-enough story, visually dynamic characters, and truly kick-ass fight choreography, but what helps to make Prince-Blythwood’s genre entry stand out amongst its peers is how she and her actors use that simple premise to explore their characters with depth and attention. Each of the characters’ central to the story is appropriately fleshed out with even the most minor character feeling richly 3-dimensional.

Mbedu, who is predominantly known for her TV work in South Africa, absolutely shines in her film debut. Starring opposite the brilliant Viola Davis could make even the most accomplished actor falter in their confidence, but Mbedu showed up and showed out for her role as the young Nawi – a headstrong and independent young woman who wants nothing more than to be free from the shackles of societal expectations.

Although The Woman King is largely about Davis’ character, much of her narrative is explored through Nawi as she comes into the palace and begins her training with the Agojie. Constantly butting heads with Nanisca to prove her skill and greatness, Nawi’s impertinence and trouble-seeking personality allows for Nanisca to reveal her truest self, softening the General’s hard exterior and nurturing a new kind of strength within.

The Woman King, while packaged as a historical epic, is truthfully far more insular. Dealing expressly with the process of overcoming trauma, The Woman King addresses uncomfortable themes like the lasting scars of sexual assault, with genuine care and poise, and interrogates the nation’s role in the enslavement of their own people. Importantly, The Woman King allows space for its characters to live with these traumas; rather than the events happening, triggering a singular response, and then ending in a neat resolution, Prince-Blythwood’s characters have worn these scars from the very start, feel their pain frequently and actively choose to wear them as armour for the battles ahead.

Additional to the themes of self-actualisation and healing, The Woman King features a cast made almost entirely of black women. Not only are these women portrayed as brave, strong, unflinching warriors, but they’re also dressed in traditional clothing, wearing natural hairstyles, and experiencing as much joy with each other as they do in sorrow.

While exploring the dark realities of the slave trade and the tragedies of war, The Woman King also deeply explores culture and tradition through its superb costumes, afrobeat soundtrack, and gorgeous set design. The way black women and African culture are simply allowed to exist and thrive, not as ‘savages’ but as fighters, people with a long history of surviving through displacement and discrimination, feels somehow unique even in this ever evolving cinematic landscape.

Gorgeously shot and beautifully told, The Woman King revitalises a stale genre to bring moviegoers a riotously good time filled with all the action, drama, and endorphins they could ask for.

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