Producers: Cathy Schulman, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon and Maria Bello Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenplay: Dana Stevens Cast: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, John Boyega, Jimmy Odukoya, Jordan Bolgar, Jayme Lawson, Adrienne Warren, Masali Baduza, Angelique Kidjo and Chioma Umeala Distributor: Sony Entertainment/TriStar Pictures
Let’s say this straightaway: from the standpoint of historical accuracy about the nineteenth-century slave trade, “The Woman King” is less Dahomey—the western African coastal kingdom in which it’s set—than Dahooey. The ultimate claim Dana Stevens’ script makes is that in the early 1820s the ruler of the realm was convinced to end his kingdom’s long-entrenched role in exploiting the trade and turn to the export of other commodities by not only practical considerations but arguments about its inhumanity.
This is, quite simply, bunk. Dahomey maintained a thriving, and brutal, role in the slave trade until well into the 1850s. It was pressure from abolitionist-minded European states—including use of military force—that compelled the shift attributed here to an enlightened attitude. One can well understand why the film’s portrayal of the kingdom as a morally progressive, internally pretty benign, realm will be comforting to modern audiences, but it’s nonetheless essentially more Wakanda that Dahomey.
In other respects, though, Stevens has gotten the history right. During the period in which the story is set, Dahomey did wage what amounted to a war of liberation against the larger, more powerful Oyo Empire to the west, to which for decades it had been forced to pay tribute. And among its most able warriors were a ferocious band of females, the Agoji, whom westerners called Amazons—the clear inspiration for Wakanda’s Dora Milaje.
It’s this fierce group, a gender-altered modern version of the Spartan hoplites (in function if not social status), that’s at the center of “The Woman King.” Dahomey is in fact a patriarchal society, ruled in a distinctly authoritarian fashion by King Ghezo (John Boyega). But he relies heavily for the defense of his realm on the Agoji, led by the formidable General Nanisca (Viola Davis). Their strength is needed now more than ever, since the Oyo are starting to impose sterner control over Dahomey under their ambitious, cruel General Oda (Jimmy Odukoya). Even Portuguese slave trader Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), who’s been profitably dealing with Ghezo for a while, tells his companion, the mixed blood Malik (Jordan Bolger), whose mother was Dahomey, that Ghezo’s rule may soon be over.
Such prophecies do not reckon with Nanisca, who takes it upon herself to bolster the Agoji once Oda’s intentions become clear. Among the new recruits is Nawi (Thasos Mbedu), an independent-minded girl given over to the king after she’s refused an arranged marriage to an older man—with good reason, as the fellow’s a macho brute. Nanisca is initially perturbed by the girl’s attitude, but her close friend and advisor Amenza (Sheila Atim) counsels patience, and another group leader, Izogie (Lashana Lynch), seeing promise in Nawi, becomes her unofficial coach. Under her guidance Nawi emerges, along with Ode (Adrienne Warren), as the recruits with the greatest potential.
As the war rages on, Nanisca’s tactical skill proves instrumental in overcoming Oyo’s numerical superiority, as well as the strength of its cavalry and modern weaponry. But so does the determination of her soldiers.
In adding to these fictional elements of his script, however, Stevens resorts to melodramatic devices that may well strike you as extremely hokey. It’s revealed in some disturbing flashbacks that Nanisca has very personal reasons for her hatred of Oda. It’s also revealed that she bore a child—something forbidden among the Agoji—which she tasked Amenza with disposing of. Need we add that Nawi was an orphan adopted by a nasty stepfather? There’s also a Romeo-and-Juliet romance between the girl and handsome Malik, who removes his shirt at every possible opportunity, as well as the plots of Shante (Jayme Lawson), the most ambitious and pampered of Ghezo’s wives, who is incensed when he chooses the bring Nanisca into his house and show her preferment, despite her low breeding. Nanisca’s principled opposition to slavery, which eventually leads to the destruction of the port slave market and the slaughter of the European oppressors, as well as Ghezo’s decision to consider ending the sale of slaves altogether, are also part of the equation, of course.
All of which makes the film feel like a throwback to the spectacles of yesteryear—think “Spartacus” with a feminist (and African) slant. But under Gina Prince-Bythewood’s muscular direction, the battle sequences and one-on-one contests (you know there will be one between Nanisca and Oda) are rousingly staged, with lots of action (and considerable violence), even if the use of visual effects to spruce them (and other wide vistas, like seascapes) up is sometimes apparent. The attention to detail in Akin McKenzie’s production design and Gersha Phillips is admirable, and Polly Morgan’s sweeping cinematography makes good use of the South African locations. Though Terilyn Shropshire’s editing at times feels insufficiently taut, Terence Blanchard’s soaring score adds flavor and energy to the proceedings.
Add to that some fine acting, especially by Davis, who exhibits a physicality entirely new to her screen persona—at times she’s nearly unrecognizable—brings enormous intensity to Nanisca, and though Mbedu seems a bit too small to be convincing as an Amazonian figure, her likableness pays dividends. Lynch, Atim and Warren offer stellar support, and Lawson is a convincing antithesis to them. Among the men Boyega convinces as a shrewd politician and Odukoya as a brutal imperialist, while Tiffin makes a smugly confident exploiter and Bolgar a sympathetic hunk for Nawi.
So long as you don’t take it as a history lesson, “The Woman King” works as a brawny Hollywood action epic of the old school, though one with a slant you won’t have seen before.