Director Gina Prince-Bythewood has specifically noted The Last of the Mohicans, Gladiator, and Braveheart as inspirations for her historical action film, The Woman King. Key to each of those films and this superb Africa-focused feature is how they play as crowd-pleasing works of entertainment. Yes, connecting to the various characters in these films on relatable, emotional levels is nice. Observing their takes on history can also be helpful to some degree. Still, at the end of the day, watching the story of iconic warriors using their courage, strength, and tenacity to get them through the most difficult of situations plays really well to a packed audience.
The story revolves around the West African nation of Dahomey during the 1820s. This kingdom was notable for having an all-female group of warriors, the Agojie, who served the king and protected their land. Viola Davis stars as Nanisca, the Agojie general, who needs to train a new generation of warriors to increase their ability to fend off enemies, consisting mainly of the rival Oyo Empire.
As expected, Davis brings all of her authority to this role. As one with years of experience, Nanisca matches her fierceness with intelligence, putting her in a position to properly advise King Ghezo (John Boyega). Looked up to by Amenza (Sheila Atim), her second-in-command, and those around her, it’s the sort of commanding performance any number of male action stars have had the opportunity to pull off, with only so many feeling like standouts. Even while older than the average action hero, Davis is in control of portraying this warrior woman.
Wisely, this film is not focused solely on some infallible military general. As much time as we spend watching Nanisca deal with the state of the kingdom, The Woman King also puts a lot of focus on Nawi (an excellent Thuso Mbedu). She is a young woman whose reluctance to take a husband has led her to be among those training to become an Agojie. Letting half of the film focus on this part of the story makes the film part-coming of age story and part-military training/action film. Further steps are taken to ensure Nawi and Nanisca’s journey’s become intertwined, and the results solidify this story as one taking the right approach to maximize enjoyment.
With multiple perspectives in play, there’s plenty of time to understand this film’s depiction of how the world works. Like any historical drama, sometimes things get handled pretty fast and loose in terms of accuracy, but this is not a documentary. Regardless of Dahomey’s actual way of handling slavery, for example, this is a film that positions Nanisca as one hoping to steer her king in a new direction when considering the slave trade and the presence of wealthy Europeans taking advantage of their power.
When not focusing on the politics of the time, watching Nawi’s journey to becoming a warrior is never less than compelling. While skilled, she’s also stubborn. Seeing her grow as a character means witnessing the trials and tribulations that make any film like this effective. It also means supplying a mentor figure who comes in the form of Lashana Lynch’s Izogie. In a movie full of effective cast members, Lynch stands quite strong as someone who is not only effective in action but lets her softer side come through in an effort to help Nawi find her way.
Of course, there’s also time for action, and the film shines here as well. Being set in the same sort of realm as other historical epics, The Woman King is less about being action-packed and more about delivering in the three or four big sequences that show the Agojie in total control of their abilities as highly skilled warriors. Director Prince-Bythewood, who started out with the terrific sports drama Love & Basketball and more recently delivered one of Netflix’s best action efforts, The Old Guard, doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Shot in South Africa and putting a reasonably moderate budget to good effect, in addition to solid fight choreography, it’s refreshing to see a film full of hundreds of extras in a large-scale battle, as opposed to watching a camera swoop through hordes of CGI armies.
Adding to this element is the film’s commitment to character. These fights and battle scenes not only propel the story forward but feel essential to understanding who these people are. The brutal efficiency seen in the elder warriors is effective and pretty cool, given the combination of spears, swords, and daggers. Even the limited use of rifles has a way of paying off in a manner that is still befitting a fairly accessible PG-13 rating.
The need to sell audiences on certain areas of drama can get in the way a bit. I wouldn’t say this film needed to be shortened, but some curious moments could have used more coverage to make it clearer. At the same time, inserting a forbidden romance narrative for Nawi to be involved in feels in line with other Hollywood productions and doesn’t function as a feature highlight. However, the gender role reversal does not go unnoticed, and the resolution plays fair, even if part of its purpose was to help connect the plot more simply.
Really, in terms of the relationships on display, the interactions between Nanisca and those closest to her play best. This includes several strong scenes between Davis and Mbedu. While new to film (Mbedu is coming off the brilliant Prime Video series, The Underground Railroad), going up against Oscar-winner Viola Davis is no small task, but these moments resonate as they should. Similarly, as the film slowly reveals more about Nanisca’s past, Davis and Atim work well together as the film reconfigures what we’ve come to understand.
Meanwhile, Boyega is having a good time as a young king wanting to make the best decisions while not looking weak. The fact that he has to deal with multiple wives and rival nations allows for some of the film’s more humorous moments.
Of course, it is also worth noting what a production like this represents. While it’s no surprise to see elaborate hairstyling, costume, and production design utilized to create a dynamic look for a film set in a historical period and representing Africa, it also matters where it’s all coming from. It’s rare to have a woman of color directing a historical action feature, let alone one attempting to shine a light on African culture in a way that offsets the more stereotypical depictions.
While there’s never any real justification from the unimaginative sect of folks concerned with casting established characters with people of color, one constant refrain tends to be, “why not just make your own story.” Condescending as that may be, here it is — The Woman King, a well-acted, superbly made historical action flick that could easily serve as an inspiration for many in the same way we’ve seen from other films like it.
This brings me back to a major aspect of what works about this film – it’s terrific entertainment. The notion of making a film following historical events and utilizing a diverse cast does not need to always be seen as a film to watch as “homework.” The Woman King is particularly strong because it knows how to deliver what a moviegoing audience wants to see. There are characters to root for, villains you want to see get their comeuppance, moments of fun, some wicked action sequences, high-quality production values, and all the stuff that helps movies like this standout. If that’s the sort of big-screen entertainment one wants to see (as opposed to the latest established franchise film that was guaranteed to be seen already), here’s a film that delivers.