Did you hear that?
In the distance, something stirs.
An animal? Maybe. It’s probably nothing.
Wait, what was that? That was definitely something.
Warm laughter by the campfire cools to the ash of silence. The tall grass parts. It’s Viola Davis with a goddamned machete.
“The Woman King” does not f**k around.
Within minutes, the film explodes into gorgeously choreographed, clearly visible carnage. If you had misgivings about the eye-plucking violence, release it. The men being slaughtered are slavers, and Davis is, as always, our salvation.
Inspired by the true story of the Agojie warriors of Dahomey, director Gina Prince-Bythewood has reinvigorated the cliched, messiah warrior epic. It is “Gladiator” or “Braveheart” but with a better lead and improved action. It is, hilariously, almost a direct mirror of the plot from “Top Gun: Maverick.” Yet, for some reason, big fans of that movie aren’t as vocal proponents of this one…
Set in the 1820s on the African continent, a place and time that public schools may or may not be allowed to even mention anymore, “The Woman King” focuses squarely on the slave trade. The Oyo Empire has united with Europeans to sell captives stolen from other kingdoms into lives of hellish labor. Dahomey’s new king, Ghezo (John Boyega), is open to rebelling against Oyo. This is what Nanisca (Davis), the leader of the Agojie, wants. And what Viola Davis wants should absolutely always happen.
As Nanisca bends her king’s ear, a young recruit, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), learns the ways of the Agojie. Training with the impossibly bad-ass Izogie (Lashana Lynch), Nawi learns how much of her disobedience and rebellion is a virtue and how much is actually quite obnoxious and dangerous. The new leader of the Oyo forces, Oba (Jimmy Oadukoya), soon forces Dahomey’s hand, and things spiral into fiery, spectacular violence. That plot again: An aging, rebellious soldier trains young recruits for a likely suicide mission, one of whom she has a strained family bond with, only to join them for the glory of their nation. So yes, “The Woman King” is “Top Gun: Maverick” but eleventy billion times better, in part, because its villains are pro-slavery.
Honestly, why aren’t slavers more commonly used as bad guys? In the same way no redeemable human being winces when a Nazi is ground into bratwurst on screen, seeing Davis and company hack-and-slash their way through rabid anti-abolitionists is cathartic. And that hacking and slashing is capital G Great. The Agojie fighting style is depicted as a blend of grappling, gymnastics, and goddamned machetes. Yes please. Polly Morgan’s cinematography is deliciously clean and crisp; it is visually readable in a way that few action movies ever are.
The non-swordplay parts are also pretty damn great, and that’s not just Viola Davis but also very much Viola Davis. Lynch sizzles as the seasoned vet whipping rookies into shape. Mbedu is a fantastic audience surrogate, the appropriate blend of wide-eyed and steel jawed. Boyega walks right up to the line of chewing scenery. His deference to Davis isn’t just a function of his character’s choices as written but his performance as delivered.
Yes, “The Woman King” is relentlessly hackneyed. No, nobody should care. This is escapism with slavery as its punching bag. It is rah-rah patriotism for a once-proud African nation. It is rote mythmaking featuring characters often pushed entirely out of history. A review online decried this as having “Disney-fied girlboss energy.” That a man could write such a thing in the year 2022 is justification for its entire existence.
Grade = A
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Sherin Nicole at Idobi.com says “Fierce women were the spice of all eras. Why weren’t we taught about them in school? I think you already know.”
Britany Murphy at DiscussingFilm.Net says “It’s extremely rare for Black women to be seen in the way they’re shown in ‘The Woman King.’ What we typically get are watered-down images and controlled voices of Black women that fit the typical Hollywood narrative, which is still largely run and dictated by white men. Thankfully, ‘The Woman King’ is a huge leap away from all of that.”
Courtney Small at CinemaAxis.com says “The film is as much about removing the shackles of fear as it is a tale of the importance of uplifting one’s community and forging new paths in the process.”