Saturday, September 17, 2022


There’s a special thrill in seeing an old-fashioned Hollywood spectacle that uses a familiar vernacular in the service of new ideas. The Woman King delivers what you’d expect from a historical epic of its kind: wide shots and stunning vistas, well-considered period detail, negotiations between nations, courtly intrigue, battlefield strategy, warriors in training and on the attack. But its perspective and its telling breathes with life where so many others fall dead behind cliche. By setting its tale in the African nation of Dahomey, at a time when their impressive all-woman fighting force known as the Agojie fought back against invading tribes and white slavers alike, the movie takes on a power and a force that complicates the standard narratives. When an African leader waves his hand dismissively at a Portuguese envoy’s tales of European warfare and declares that those “tribal” disputes mean nothing to him, there’s a pleasing reversal. What a welcome corrective to centuries of stories wherein the entire continent of Africa is mere backdrop for Western adventurism. But the film itself wears this lightly and with earnest exploration. As a moving and compelling human-scale story, it makes the politics of its moment come alive, as when the King of Dahomey (John Boyega) debates with his council whether or not to continue selling their captives to the slave trade, or when painful legacies of violence are brought forth through new potentialities embodied in fragile found families.

The film centers the story of its women fighters with a sense not merely of gawking at spectacles of violence, or of admiring musculatures in action, but of flesh and blood and real human feeling. It helps that Viola Davis is in charge, using every ounce of her considerable charisma to play the general of these fearsome troops, and every bit of her richly textured emotive performance to imbue her character with an entire life of struggle and hard-fought power in each gesture and glance. There’s never any doubt she’s in charge as she grounds her strategy in a sturdy sense of moral fervor and a cleverness in negotiating royal considerations. She leads troops full of fascinating figures—a teenager (Thuso Mbedu) abandoned by her father for refusing all suitors, a spiritual confidant who skillfully wields a staff and spear (Sheila Atim), a seemingly fearless commander who can withstand a cutting blade or a broken bone with barely a flinch (Lashana Lynch). The sense of camaraderie and strength the group generates embodies a form of sisterly empowerment and collective action. Davis’ general gives them a clear sense of purpose through sacrifice—solidarity through unwavering unity. They stand strong in the face of tough odds.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood presents this with walloping action and impressive scale. But she’s also keenly attuned to the interpersonal dynamics and in who these characters are as people. This lends lively depth, and intense sympathetic interest to the plot’s developments. She’s one of our great directors of intimate, humane dramas—with such great romances as Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights. Here she brings her generosity of spirit and sensitive understanding of relationships to warriors building bonds and training to break bones and spill blood. Her prior picture, the atypical comic book actioner The Old Guard, was a fine first round with such things. This new one is one of her best films yet—alive with specificity in every role. The Woman King is not merely about who will win the battle—although that’s certainly powerful rooting interest, and the finale is a satisfying act of rebellion against the slave trade—but in who these fighters are. There’s as much attention to the combat as to characters discovering themselves, alone and together, building connections and mending deep psychological wounds. It’s a film about scars. Davis’ character says every great warrior has them. The camera lingers on a few now and again, even as the actors play out the metaphor. They’ve each found new purpose, turning the scars of their past into the fuel for their warrior fires, and finding friendship and determination in a matriarchal force with which to be reckoned. This, too, is a thrill.

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