There’s no doubt that Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” derives its strength from the ensemble cast.   Viola Davis is a tour de force as Nanisca, the resilient Agojie general of a group of female warriors tasked with protecting the African kingdom of Dahomey ruled by King Ghezo (John Boyega).  The Oscar-winning actress is supported by strong performances from Sheila Atim and Lashana Lynch as two of her captains and Thuso Mbedu as the orphan recruit who blossoms into a woman in the historical epic based on real people and events.

Marvel gave us a fictionalized version of the female warriors with “Black Panther”, but this is the real deal.  No fancy weapons, just spears, swords, muscle, and machetes; occasionally a rope.  The actors underwent nine months of physical training to prepare for their roles, paying off the most for 57-year-old Davis who proves that age is nothing but a number as she transforms into a genuine badass for her demanding role.

Set in 1823, King Ghezo (Boyega) warns his people in the Dahomey nation, “An evil is coming that threatens our kingdom”.  He speaks about the Oyo, a group of West African slave traders known for enslaving and auctioning the Dahomey to European and American colonizers.  The King’s right-hand woman, General Nanisca (Davis) of the Agojie regiment declares “We must fight back for our people” suggesting they go to war to put an end to the slave trade.

The Agojie were a group of female Amazon warriors who, according to history, began as elephant hunters and bodyguards to the Queen.  They were later recruited as soldiers and under King Ghezo, they formed the military unit that became Dahomey’s first line of defense.

During this period, the teenage women in the tribe were married off to rich old men to begin a life of servitude.  Nineteen-year-old Nawi (played by South African actor Thuso Mbedu) isn’t down for that life and after fighting back against her soon-to-be-husband, she is dropped off at the palace gates by her angry father as a gift to the king.  Izogie (Lashana Lynch who played Nomi in the 007 film “No Time to Die”), a leader in the Agojie, takes the rebellious teenager under her wing as a recruit.

Despite her arrogance and disrespect, Nawi is given several chances by Nanisca to shape up or ship out.  Maybe she sees a bit of herself in the child-like recruit.  The general’s closet friend and counsel Amenza (a wonderful Sheila Atim), seems to be around when needed most to keep emotions in check, a scene midway through the film between Amenza and Nanisca adds a new plot twist as their characters’ backstory is revealed.

You’ve never seen Viola Davis in a role like this.  She is mesmerizing, you can’t take your eyes off her.  The fight scenes by choreographer and stunt woman Jénel Stevens, are thrilling, intense, and comparable to the battle sequences in “Braveheart” or “Gladiator.”  The actors used Jujitsu, Chinese Wushu, and Kali to train for their roles.  I should also note that most of the stunts were done by the actors, yes that’s Davis flipping guys over her back. 

There is a scene in the film where the Agojie recruits must pass a final test that includes running through a cloister of thorn bushes.  It was very hard to watch this scene, you can feel the pain these women are going through.  Cinematographer Polly Morgan captures the beauty of Africa with scenes filled with vibrant color.  She also used lighting to create an ambiance of gloom for the film’s darker moments. 

An epic film deserves an equally epic score which is why composer Terence Blanchard was brought in, reuniting with Prince-Bythewood to provide the film’s orchestral accompaniment which is rich in African culture and sounds. The Grammy-winning composer who’s been Oscar-nominated twice (going for a third nomination here) elevates the atmosphere.  It’s an electrifying and integral part of the historical film. 

Written by Dana Stevens based on a story by Maria Bello, “The Woman King” is an honorable tribute to the Amazon warriors who reigned over the kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin) from 1600 to 1904.   Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood made Hollywood take notice two decades ago with her debut “Love & Basketball.”  Then in 2020, seemingly out of nowhere, she brought us her version of a superhero film “The Old Guard” starring Charlize Theron and Kiki Palmer as immortal mercenaries, based on Greg Rucka’s comics.  It was a refreshing take on a genre that was beginning to go stale. 

“The Woman King” is focused on the real superheroes of the world, in this case, the Agojie.  It’s thrilling, emotional, and powered by an exceptional cast led by another incredible Viola Davis performance.  And while Davis is in the title role, the film is equally, if not more so, Nawi’s coming-of-age story.  With so many good performances, it’s hard to single out just one.  This is an ensemble piece whose strength lies in numbers. 

(4 stars)

Now showing in theaters          

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.