THE WOMAN KING Reigns on Blu-ray

Gina Prince-Bythewood and Viola Davis bring the dynamite action epic home

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Set in 1823 during the reign of the West African kingdom of Dahomey, The Woman King tells the story of General Nanisca (Viola Davis), leader of the Agojie — the amazonian tribe of female soldiers who protect the king — as well as that of the new recruits she trains on the path to war with rival tribes and European slavers. While praise of the film draws quick comparisons to well-worn swords-and-sandals fare like Gladiator (which director Gina Prince-Bythewood names as inspiration, alongside The Last of the Mohicans and Braveheart), the film carves its identity as a historical epic that offers the new and the familiar in equally confident and composed measure.

Davis is a commanding and consistently impressive center that the film revolves around, but the filmmakers pack the film to the corners with compelling characters and subplots that expand the scope of the movie to match the sweeping vistas and towering emotion. There’s a lot of movie going on here, whether its John Boyega’s King Ghezu (having just recently deposed his despotic brother for the throne) deftly balancing commanding charisma with clear uncertainty in his position, the return of a threat from Nanisca’s past that also endangers the kingdom, or the gaggle of young conscripts hoping to prove themselves. Where it would be easy to imagine a cut of this film that pushes 2 1/2 hours or more, the filmmakers keep the propulsive 135 minute runtime elegant and pacey.

It helps that there are so many magnetic performances that even the supporting roles don’t feel “small.” Similar to Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Temple, the film spends time showing various groups of characters dealing with their various side business (whether it’s mastering combat techniques or engaging in political machinations) until their personal narratives get woven into the larger plot. Lashana Lynch walks away with a huge portion of the film as Izoge, one of the veterans and chief training officers of the Agojie. Lynch’s quick wit and compassion give a lot of heart to the film, and she’s also an absolute powerhouse during the action sequences. Prince-Bythewood is no stranger to these after 2020’s The Old Guard, but there’s a good deal more variety and complexity at play here that the movie takes completely in stride.

Another rising star from the film is Thuso Mbedu as Nawi, a girl who refuses to be sold off for marriage and is then given to the king to join his guard. Emerging as something of a co-lead, Mbedu is tasked with a lot of dramatic weight in the film, particularly in the back half. However, she acquits herself equally when swinging a machete as she does when holding the screen alongside Viola Davis. She has impressive chemistry with pretty much anyone she finds herself in a scene with, and winds up weaving a lot of narrative threads together simply by her affects on other characters.

It’s beautiful watching these actors come into their own as action stars as well as respected thespians, especially with so much beautiful happening around them. The filmmakers were determined to shoot in Africa if at all possible, and the gorgeous location photography and huge sets are captured with a deep warm palette that allows the greens and reds and blues (especially the indigo in the Agojie battle dress) to really shine through.

What struck me revisiting this film at home was how carefully calibrated it is to feel raw and gritty and dangerous without feeling gross and mean. There’s a lot of rough material in the movie, but Prince-Bythewood and her team capture the truth of war and slavery and the many violations people can endure (the film does not shy away about what will happen to captured Agojie) without becoming repellent. It helps that the film plays pretty fast and loose its own historical accuracy to better serves its story, but the upshot of that is that it’s a very satisfying and sharply functional tale indeed.

The Woman King proves the axiom of “the universality of specificity” in showcasing a people and a culture that hasn’t had this level of production devoted to it before, but with the familiarity of a coming war, the bullheadedness of youth, and the regret of age anchoring the audience. It’s clear to see why the project attracted Davis in the first place, and between this movie and The Old Guard, Gina Prince-Bythewood is becoming one of the names to watch in this kind of action directing.


The Woman King is included in its anamorphic 2:40:1 aspect ratio on the Blu-ray disc and digital copy, both of which offer crisp and detailed picture of a standard with Sony’s solid meat-and-potatoes approach to home media. The dialogue comes through clearly in the mix without keeping Terrence Blanchard’s score from swelling to the rafters when needed, along with some deliciously evocative sound design.

Bonus Content:

Viola Davis and Director Gina Prince-Bythewood on set.

The days of comprehensive materials on the level of the Lord of the Rings appendices may be long over, but Sony pulled together a relatively solid suite of extras. In addition to a feature-length filmmaker’s commentary, there are several featurettes covering various aspects of production.

A Caterpillar’s Destruction: Viola Davis on Set (9:48) — Covers the initial pitch of the project to Davis as well as showcasing her commitment to the role and as a leader among the other cast members.

Woman Warrior (11:40) — Gives a glimpse at some of the physical training the cast received, as well as how the actors informed their characters

Storytellers (10:19) — Showcases different aspects of making the film, from production design and costumes to hair & makeup and combat practice.

Representation Matters (9:59) — Featurette about the need for telling more kinds of stories on this level of canvas, as well as giving more information about the sexual politics of the kingdom of Dahomey.

Thuso Mbedu Auditions (6:35) — Thoso Mbedu’s audition tape featuring key readings

Previews (7:31) — Coming attractions from Sony Pictures.

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