The Woman King – Film Review
by Fran Winston
Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Jordan Bolger
In cinemas on October 4th
On paper, this might look somewhat like an action fantasy drama, but it is actually based (albeit loosely) on true events. At its heart is the female Agojie army who were real soldiers that protected the kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa from the 17th to early 20th century. Indeed, they were the tribe that came to be known as Amazons which have taken on a whole lore of their own.
This fictional story takes their legend and weaves it into a tale that sees Viola Davis play General Nanisca – the fierce and powerful leader of the women. She is training the next generation of soldiers but finds herself particularly drawn to one of the trainees – a young girl called Nawi (Mbedu) who was offered to them by her father when she refused to marry a much older man that beat her.
Intrigued and infuriated by the newcomer in equal measure, Nawi also causes concern when she grows close to a man (which is forbidden) called Malik (Bolger), a mixed-race man whose mother was a member of the Dahomen. He arrives with a group of European slavers. When the Dahomey find themselves attacked by another tribe many of the women find themselves awaiting sale in the slave market but their sisters rally to free them and to banish the slave market from the kingdom forever!
Historically, this has several issues if you scratch the surface – the main one being that Dahomey was a kingdom that conquered other African states and enslaved their citizens to sell in the Atlantic slave trade, and most of the kingdom’s wealth was derived from slavery. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story? If you ignore this and take this as a fantasy drama then it sits much better.
At its best this film is majestic. When it dips it is mediocre. That is mainly due to a poor and predictable script with twists that you see coming a mile away. Also, while I appreciate that he is based on a real character, the fact that these women, with all their power, would bow and scrape to John Boyega’s King was a bit galling to me. Even in a world where they were lauded, they still take orders from a man.
The action scenes are a joy to behold and completely elevate this. Davis is fantastic as the battle-hardened general and her strength and power burst from the screen. Newcomer Mbedu really makes her mark and is clearly destined for great things, and Lashana Lynch is impressive as Izogie one of the most powerful of all the warriors. At 135 minutes this does wear out its premise a bit but overall it is an entertaining and inspiring movie that will really fire you up.