THE WOMAN KING: Oscar-Winner Viola Davis’s Powerful Performance Elevates Historical Epic

A little-known African story gets the big-budget, feature-film treatment

With Viola Davis as the lead, success can’t be far behind.

Last week, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and other commonwealth realms, holder of the longest recorded reign in European history, breathed her last after enjoying free room and board at taxpayer expense for the better part of a century. As much of the English-speaking world mourned the end of an era, etc., detractors of the monarchy were repeatedly told to hold their tongues, respect the dead, and wait until some unspecified time in the near or distant future to voice any concerns or critiques about England’s form of government, their centuries-long history of colonialism and imperialism, or the body of the queen herself.

Civility and so-called good manners may not be the death of us, at least not yet, but at best, they can only forestall the inevitable reckoning with the British monarchy and its rule. And while there may be better fictional and/or non-fictional examples as to where we should begin, the arrival of filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood’s (The Old Guard, Beyond the Lights, Love & Basketball) latest film, The Woman King, a historical epic that grapples, however superficially, with the intertwined legacies of slavery, racism, and colonialism by centering a little-known group of female warriors, the Agojie, who served and protected the Kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin) and its rulers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The last thing the warriors of a neighboring village see before their collective demise.

The Woman King essentially balances two, interwoven stories, the once and future “woman king” of the title, General Nanisca (Viola Davis), the leader of the Agojie and trusted, respected counselor to the newly installed king, Ghezo (John Boyega), and Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a young woman abandoned by her parents at the Agojie as she rises through the ranks from novice trainee to full-fledged warrior. While Nanisca often hovers offscreen, her presence, in part due to Oscar-winner Davis in the title role, as our viewpoint character, Nawi gets the bulk of the screen time and thus, a well-developed, if sometimes over-familiar, character arc.

Over the course of The Woman King, Prince-Bythewood includes multiple scenes focusing on Nanisca and the geopolitics that will ultimately determine the fate of Dahomey. A wary, thoughtful leader, Nanisca hesitates to use violence except as a last resort or to obtain an irreversible tactical advantage over any one of the surrounding tribes who hope to conquer Dahomey and replace Ghezo with someone more favorable to their interests. Though it’s never made explicit, Ghezo’s defeat would also mean the end of the Agojie and the relative freedoms they enjoy in an otherwise strictly hierarchical, patriarchal system.

Missing from this photo: Viola Davis’s General Nanisca.

Nawi’s experiences follow a predictable course, from stubborn, raw recruit, a constant headache to Nawi’s principal trainer and mentor, Izogie (Lashana Lynch), to a potential, life-altering romance with a half-Portuguese/half-African trader, Malik (Jordan Bolger), and on through another life-altering choice: Whether she should stay with the Agojie, reputing the prospect of marriage, children, or a settled domestic life, or pursue that opportunity with Malik. Along the way, of course, larger events, including an alliance between Dahomey’s rivals, threaten to make the decision for Nawi.

The screenplay by Dana Stevens (Fatherhood, For the Love of the Game, City of Angels) from a story credited to Stevens and Maria Bello repeatedly places Nawi in conflict with the foreboding Nanisca, in part to create inter-character tension and conflict, but also to contrast the young, naive Nawi and the older, far more cynical Nanisca. No prizes for guessing where their initially combative relationship leads, though a melodramatic turn bordering on soap opera, while certainly offering audiences one or two cheer-worthy moments, turns what should have remained subtext into clumsy, awkward text.

A young king and his most trusted advisor.

Smartly, The Woman King turns Dahomey’s decision to halt its practice of selling captives into slavery to Europeans a pivotal one, though a line about Europeans bringing their “immorality” (presumably the practice of slavery) feels too much like an attempt to sidestep a complex, uncomfortable issue in exchange for another crowd-pleasing moment. Not surprisingly, The Woman King also sidesteps the question of the Agojie and whether, given their isolation from the outside world, engaged in meaningful romantic relationships with one another, ending where it begins, with the Agojie as a chaste sisterhood of warriors driven by their desire to succeed on the battlefield with minimal loss of life.

Where The Woman King falters dramatically or thematically, it succeeds without qualification when the Agojie are sent into battle. Introduced attacking neighboring warriors during the night, the Agojie, covered in palm oil less to accentuate their muscular physiques than to make them difficult to hold or grasp by their opponents, make for formidable foes. Their entrance makes for the first of many rousing moments, each one well-choreographed and, almost as importantly, shot and edited by Prince-Bythewood and her collaborators, to emphasize their graceful, athletic, ultimately mesmerizing, movements on the battlefield. Watching the Agojie in action feels like watching real-life superheroes except they have no need for spandex and don’t have any superpowers.

The Woman King opens theatrically in North America on Friday, September 16th.

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