Gina Prince-Bythewood is a director that I’ve fallen in love with, and thanks to work on The Old Guard, I’ve been wanting to see her tackle more action sequences. In The Woman King, Prince-Blythewood manages to tell an intimate and emotional story of resiliency and defiance while also pulling off dynamic and large battle sequences. Her balance of action and the emotion captured in the fray, the survival, and death shows a skilled eye for understanding that an action sequence is never just a fight, but rather a moment to tell a story packed with emotion.
The Woman King is directed by Prince-Blythewood, with a story written by Maria Bello and Dana Stevens (and screenplay by Stevens), and stars Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Jordan Bolger, and Hero Fiennes Tiffin. In this film, inspired by history, we follow the Agojie, an all female military unit that serve as the protectors and King’s Guard for Dahomey and its king, King Ghezo (John Boyega) in the 1800s.
The Woman King follows two women, one who has been shaped by her traumatic past into a warrior and one who is choosing her path forward after refusing to marry. The former General Nanisca (Viola Davis), is a fierce woman whose emotional journey serves as the axis for the story. A part of the next generation, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) has entered the walls of the palace to serve her king and choose her own life that doesn’t involve bowing to a husband’s will. While the two go through a parallel growth, the kingdom of Dahomey is under siege from a neighboring kingdom and starting to deal with the moral implications of selling captured enemies as slaves to the Europeans.
The film ultimately manages to present a larger historical story and memory about colonization and slavery while also managing to tell an intimate story about two women on similar paths. While Nanisca is teaching the next generation to kill their tears as she did, Nawi is stubborn and looking for her own way that honors her emotions and her sisters in the Agojie. It’s this journey that looks to process what Nanisca views as strength and what she views as weakness and why that makes The Woman King a great drama. Pulling the audience with a high emotional investment, the film pays off with Davis’ powerful acting.
While Nawi is an important part of The Woman King, this is Davis’ film, and her artful control of her face, her voice, and her body are breathtaking. Early in the film, Nanisca tells Nawi that a warrior kills her tears. After that moment every time we see Nanisca’s violent past emerge Davis shows it on her face, the killing of her tears, pushing the trauma down, deeper and deeper. There is a silent scream caught behind her eyes and it’s painful to see as she buries it down and keeps moving forward. We all know that Davis has dramatic acting capability, so her powerful performance shouldn’t come as a surprise. But when this is coupled with a stellar physical performance, Davis showcases that action sequences can be just as intimate and emotional as dramatic moments.
For the action, every single member of the Agojie absolutely brings it. They’re beautiful and powerful, and their world is vibrant and whole. We get to see their sisterhood behind the palace walls through ceremony and celebration as well as their bonds on the battlefield. We see their joy as they dance together and celebrate their victory and we see them mourn in a way only warriors can. The Agojie is a sisterhood that is about more than just fighting, it’s also about healing. While their strength is on display, so is their vulnerability. This balance of strength and emotion is what makes The Woman King succeed as a film. It’s action as much as it’s drama and it’s amazing to see.
The Woman King also does a phenomenal job of showcasing the culture, wealth, and beauty of Dahomey. Vibrant fabrics, stunning make-up, dynamic music, care, and reverence were put into bringing Dahomey and its splendor to life. Additionally, this continues with the details paid to the weapons used in battle showcasing a variety of warfare and skill that wasn’t only amazing to see on screen but awesome in the literal sense of the word.
While the film is easily one of my favorite experiences of the year in a theater, there are a couple of elements that only make it near perfect instead of absolutely perfect. The first is the inclusion of a romance subplot that feels quite forced and accelerated, and the second is that despite Prince-Blythewood’s phenomenal action staging, there are moments where swords don’t connect and the wounds from being injured or killed look like bright red blots of ink rather than an injury from war. But those two elements aren’t enough to mar the film’s overall accomplishment of blending intimacy, history, action, and more.
The Woman King is a fantastic film that not only shows exactly why Gina Prince-Blythewood should helm action and drama alike, but also that Viola can easily best any action star on the screen. A great theatrical experience, and an even greater story, this is one to watch the moment it comes out. It’s an action epic that is sure to make everyone stand up and cheer.
The Woman King is playing in theaters nationwide September 16, 2022.
The Woman King
The Woman King is a fantastic film that not only shows exactly why Gina Prince-Blythewood she should helm action and drama alike, but also that Viola can easily best any action star on the screen. A great theatrical experience, and an even greater story, this is one to watch the moment it comes out.