MOVIE REVIEW: The Woman King
Viola Davis and Lashana Lynch Shine In This Historic Epic — ★★★★
Sparking quite an outcry from a certain subsect of moviegoers upon the debut of its trailer, and subsequently, the release of the film, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s African-based historical epic, The Woman King finally arrived in theaters in September 2022. Led by an electric performance from Viola Davis, Prince-Bythewood’s film delivers on its promise of sheer epicness in both its scale and its lead performance. From dazzling action set-pieces to its softer moments, The Woman King has not only carved its place as one of the great historical epics, but as one of the top films of the year.
Opening with an expository crawl, The Woman King opens in 1823 in the dead of night within the Dahomey Kingdom. General Nanisca (Viola Davis), leader of the Agojie, liberates captured and enslaved Dahomean women who were abducted by the Oyo Empire. Bringing about talk of war from King Ghezo (John Boyega), ruler of Dahomey, Nanisca begins to train a new generation of warriors to join the Agojie in order to protect her kingdom. Among these warriors is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), an orphan who was given to the King by her foster father after refusing a number of arranged marriages. During her training amongst the freed prisoners and slaves of the Oyo, Nawi is taken under the wing of Izogie (Lashana Lynch), a veteran Agojie.
Following her graduation into warrirorhood, Nawi reveals that she is an orphan and was adopted, sharing her strange birthmark with Nanisca. Upon the arrival of European slavers, Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) makes his entrance into Africa as part of the Slave Trade, working both with the Oyo and the Dahomey. Santo is accompanied by the half-Dahomean Malik (Jordan Bolger), who strikes up a connection with Nawi.
Following a successful battle against the Oyo, the Kingdom of Dahomey gains the upper hand for once, though at the cost of the capture of both Nawi and Izogie. After being informed that she will be named Ghezo’s Woman King, Nanisca disobeys orders and storms the Oyo stronghold, freeing her sisters and facing off with a ghost from her past and current general of the Oyo, Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), in a thrilling, devastating climax.
Led by an all-star-worthy performance from Viola Davis, most had come to the conclusion before the film’s release that The Woman King would secure Davis awards buzz come 2023. That will undoubtedly be the case, and rightfully so as despite marketing make this seem like a totally action-packed, brutally serious affair, Viola does get to showcase her dynamic range as a leading lady. Delivering brutal violence in the opening minutes of The Woman King, Davis’ Nanisca manages to find a balance between the bloodshed, somehow finding some earned comedy during the runtime. Commanding quite the presence, when all is said and done, Viola may have an Oscar for this outing, though she may not be the only one to walk away with gold. Shining in 2021’s No Time To Die, and having a brief role in Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness in 2022, Lashana Lynch’s performance in The Woman King cannot be overlooked. Bringing the physicality, presence, and acting chops of a future leading lady, Lynch is must-watch in a supporting role here that could easily secure nominations when the time comes. Making her film debut, South African star Thuso Mbedu is another name that could receive massive recognition in late 2022 and the first half of 2023 as she is the one tasked with acting opposite of Davis in much of the movie, a tough task for anyone, but even tougher in your film debut, and yet she does hold her own.
Accompanied by a great one-two-punch from the film’s fantastic cinematography, delivered by DP Polly Morgan, and a breathtaking, awe-inspiring score from composer Terence Blanchard, The Woman King feels more alive than most blockbusters or action pictures, with the African setting feeling executed to perfection. With excellent costuming between the different kingdoms and those within, great sets, and memorable set-pieces, the final product comes together to great effect in the end.
Where The Woman King does falter slightly is in the little things. While the film is surely a historical epic, at times it does feel less than so, with the subplot between Ghezo and one of his wives feeling as if it takes away focus from Nanisca, Nawi, and the rest of the Agojie, the selling point of the film itself. Similarly, the film hints at a bond between Nawi and two of her Agojie trainees, but never delivers a reason to buy into it, hurting one of the film’s more emotional moments (though it still does pack a punch, it could have been harder had they delved into the relationship more). Still, even with minor missteps, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s directing is on point and by the time the credits do roll, it remains hard to walk away unsatisfied. For those still possibly on the fence; go see The Woman King. Not only go see it, but go see it on the biggest screen you can find before the only option is for TV viewing, as it is a movie that deserves the full theater experience.
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