Commitment to characters and stories about our collective history has fueled films for generations. Covered less often are stories about the tribal nature of Africa and its peoples, the customs, and the traditions for better or worse. Bringing these stories into the light is far more critical in an enlightened age such as we live in today, pushing our boundaries further and further. One such story, The Woman King from Gina Prince-Bythewood, tells the story of Dahomey, a West African kingdom, and its all-female warrior unit, the Agojie.
Playing to a Gladiator-type strength, The Woman King is ostentatious while remaining humble. Viola Davis plays General Nansica, the leader of the Agojie. Her pride in her legion matches the scars born from other battles; she is nimble on her feet, hard on her troops, and demanding in training the next generation of warriors.
Nansica has difficulty understanding Nawi’s (Thuso Mbedu) impertinence as a growing threat to Dhaomey looms. Discipline is vital, and loyalty is rewarded by King Ghezo (John Boyega). Davis is very disciplined in character, responding to the demands made by screenwriters Maria Bello and Dana Stevens, with the story credited to Stevens.
Nawi is central to The Woman King‘s story. As a future warrior, she must prove herself, which customs required her to do in marriage rather than as an independent human. Nawi is as fierce as Nansica but is unwise in the world’s ways. Lashana Lynch plays Izogie, Nansica’s right hand.
The Woman King plays to the historical facts and its fictional elements. Ghezo was the ruler of Dahomey from 1818-1858. The story explores a shift in trade, from slavery with the Portuguese to the sale of palm oil, which Nansica fights fiercely. Though Nansica was a fictionalized character, Ghezo did factually engage in palm oil sales. Nansica understood the inherent inhumanity of the slave trade, which the story generates as a central theme.
Just as appealing, though, is the physical stature and the realism of Agojie. Davis stands above the cast with her physique, though her intellect appeals, an aspect that has stood out in her other performances. The script called for compassion, intellect, and physical prowess, and Davis plays to all these strengths in Nansica. In a commitment to character portrayal and story, Davis serves as a producer on The Woman King.
Mbedu’s breakout role is young, wanting more out of her life than what is dictated by time, and we know that she will be a force to reckon with in the future. Lynch shines in everything she’s in, and The Woman King does not let her get overshadowed by Davis. Boyega’s Ghezo was as benevolent as he was gullible, fueled by his preening, prodding wife, trying to gain more riches from which she could benefit, leading to some laughs in the film. Don’t let that fool you, though. Ghezo was as brilliant a tactician as he was foolish for his gullibility. He knew, too well, that their way of life was threatened by the Oyo Empire and its king.
The Woman King eventually gives way to its fictionalized elements, staging remarkable and engaging fight sequences, a good portion of which were lensed by Polly Morgan at night. Davis’ cunning and agility are on full display. Though certain dramatic elements collide with the action sequences, an overarching authenticity to the story will drive popcorn sales and hopefully IMAX admissions.
The Woman King is recommended for character strength, storytelling and theme perseverance, and an epic visual style. Now in theaters.
The Woman King
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
Screenplay by Dana Stevens
Story by Maria Bello and Dana Stevens
Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega
135 mins, PG-13, Tri-Star Pictures