A great balance of drama, impressive action, and comedy make this one of the year’s best films.

I’ll admit to being a little skeptical before seeing The Woman King. I was worried it was going to be a Charlie’s Angels in Africa with another badly-written girl power story that would make my eyes roll. Thankfully, this story about a female general of the Agojie – an all-female warrior unit in the West African kingdom of Dahomey – who trains the next generation of warriors while defending the kingdom from neighboring slavors, turned out to be one of the best movies I’ve seen all year.

It is 1823 in the West African kingdom of Dahomey and General Nanisca (Viola Davis) has recently rescued a group of Dahomean women from Oyo Empire slavers. Because of the threat the Oyo Empire and their European slavery allies pose to her people, General Nanisca and her king, King Ghezo (John Boyega) prepare for war. Part of this preparation involves training new recruits for the highly respected, elite, all-female warrior unit known as the Agojie.

One of the new trainees is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a strong-willed girl whose father ‘donated’ her to the Agojie for refusing to get married to violent men. Despite her bad attitude to the disciplined life of being in the military, Nawi soon befriends veteran Agojie, Izogie (Lashana Lynch), who helps guide the young recruit in the ways of being a good warrior.

With the Oyo Empire led by General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya) ready to attack and enslave the people of Dahomey, a secret from her past coming back to haunt her, a talented new recruit who doesn’t follow orders and the King’s wife, Shante (Jayme Lawson) trying to undermine her, General Nanisca will have a lot to overcome if she is to be worthy of becoming the Woman King.

Viola Davis gives an incredible performance as Nanisca, a veteran warrior and general of the Agojie. She easily dominates the screen as a powerful warrior who commands respect and fear. Davis underwent rigorous fitness training to prepare for the role and all that training has paid off as she definitely looks the part of a seasoned warrior who despite her age and scars (both physical and mental) is still able to absolutely kick ass on the battlefield.

With a script that gives her character plenty of action and drama, Davis is able to fully show us that she can do it all with ease. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s nominated for another Oscar for this role – it would be well deserved.

Thuso Mbedu also gives a strong performance as Nawi, a 19-year-old woman who refused to become a man’s punching bag and given away by her father to be an Agojie warrior. What she lacks in physical size compared to the older fighters, she makes up for with tenacity and fighting spirit. Mbedu does a great job of portraying a young woman who at first glance doesn’t appear to be a threat, but who’s attitude and actions speak louder than her youthful appearance.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard, Beyond the Lights) has crafted a fantastic, well rounded film that’s a great mix of action, drama and a sprinkle of comedy – not unlike an African Braveheart. While I did find it a tad long – 15 minutes shorter would have helped – what’s on the screen manages to showcase the considerable acting chops from its stellar cast, particularly from Viola Davis.

What I especially liked about The Woman King is how the action is handled. There are many movies that try to convince audiences that a 120lb supermodel actress who hasn’t hit the gym can kick the crap out of hordes of moronic men in eye-rolling girl power movies and they are painful to watch. This film portrays realistic combat tactics and the training it takes in order to allow these ferocious women warriors to overwhelm their male opponents. Even then, Agojie warriors still die on the battlefield like their male counterparts.

Additionally, Prince-Bythewood has done a bang-up job of presenting her female cast as tough adversaries to respect and be fearful of but not at the expense of their femininity. On the battlefield they perform their duty as harbingers of death but when they are not fighting they are just people with friendships, responsibilities, personal goals and the needs of the human condition.

While portions of the internet have expressed anger regarding misrepresentations of the slavers in this film, I want to say the film doesn’t shy away from depicting Dahomey as a nation that deals in the barbaric slave trade, so they are definitely not potrayed as saints. However, the ending implies they would give up its slave trade in favor of increased palm oil production, which is disappointing as that’s not historically accurate at all.

Even with its lapses in historical accuracy (I did liken it as a African Braveheart, after all), The Woman King is still a fantastic cinematic experience that delivers amazing performances from its cast, outstanding direction from Prince-Bythewood, and truly impressive (and realistic) action sequences. With a great balance of drama, action, and comedy this is one of the year’s best films and a true high point in Viola Davis’ already impressive career.

  • MPAA Rating: PG-13
  • Release Date: September 16, 2022
  • Distributor: Sony Pictures

Originally published on October 08, 2022 at https://www.popzara.com/movies/movie-reviews/the-woman-king-2022/