Viola Davis should have been leading armies this whole time.
In “The Woman King,” the always regal Oscar-winner is a mass of muscle, battle wounds and world weariness as General Nanisca, the head of the Agojie, an all-female unit of warriors who protected the West African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 19th century. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who cannot be pigeonholed, the film is a throwback of sorts to the big, exciting, emotional warrior epics that used to be all too common at the multiplex, with the twist that it’s women not men driving the action.
But unlike some recent cinematic depictions of armies not entirely comprised of men, they didn’t have to look to fantasy or the comic books to make “The Woman King” — just a history that isn’t widely taught. More people probably know the Dora Milaje than the Agojie, who actually inspired the “Black Panther” fighters.
It is powerful that they are not immortal like Wonder Woman. There’s no condescending Avengers-like battle moment. There are no superpowers or magic lassos of truth. The ropes here are just ropes, but deadly still. They also fight with machetes and, sometimes, fingernails, up against brutish men and often win. In other words, there’s no tricks, Nanisca explains, just skill (and bruises and scars). There’s a reason she’s described by a young trainee as looking just like some old woman (any warrior should be so lucky to be old).
Written by Dana Stevens, “The Woman King” is a classic “one last fight” tale with a grizzled war veteran in Davis, a new recruit in Nawi (a compelling and complex Thuso Mbedu), and the one who takes her under her wing, Izogie (a terrific part for Lashana Lynch, of “Captain Marvel” and James Bond). Terence Blanchard lends a fittingly rousing score to the action, which, though brutal, is carefully constructed to keep that superhero PG-13 rating.
The world of the “The Woman King” is no paradise though. It’s 1823 and there is rape and rampant hatred of women. There are slavers and colonizers around. The young trainee, Nawi, only arrives at the palace doorsteps after her father gives up on trying to marry her off to anyone who will take her, abusive or not. The women don’t all get along, the king’s brides look down at the soldiers. And Nanisca, too, looks at women’s tears as a sign of weakness.
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It’s also a very Hollywood version of what may have happened as they prepare to go up against the powerful Oyo empire, with some convenient reveals, a love interest, a slightly idealized king figure (in John Boyega) and an old score someone needs to settle. This is not, in other words, a history lesson about the Agojie, though it could perhaps inspire some to seek that out or even write their own. That there are few true surprises isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. The film is exactly what you need it to be: An exciting and emotionally true spectacle that required a heck of a fight to simply exist.
I’ll stop short of saying that Prince-Bythewood should have been directing these all along too, however. If she’d started and stayed with action, we wouldn’t have gotten “Love & Basketball” or “Beyond the Lights,” and what kind of cinematic landscape would that be? But we should all be so lucky that she gets to do this too.
“The Woman King,” a Sony/TriStar Release in theaters now, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “sequences of strong violence, some disturbing material, thematic content, brief language and partial nudity.” Running time: 134 minutes. Three stars out of four.