"Your tears mean nothing. To be a warrior, you must kill your tears."
West Africa. 1823. An all-female military regiment called the Agojie is tasked with protecting their king (John Boyega) and Dahomey, their kingdom. With the threat of the slave trade by European colonizers and opposing nearby villages constantly striking up battles, the Agojie must do what they can to survive. General Nanisca (Viola Davis) leads the Agojie as they prove their warrior status by facing off against those who dare harm their way of life. Young Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) joins the unit only to discover that her stubbornness may stand in the way of actual progress as a warrior.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) and written by Dana Stevens and actor Mario Bello, The Woman King is a sweeping epic film, authentic and historical while compelling in its execution. In the opening scene, Nanisca and her warriors decapitate heads, stab unsuspecting adversaries with their knives, and prove that they are the baddest bitches alive. It's a stunning performance by Davis as she demonstrates what action-star qualities she can muster.
The Oyo Empire has a stranglehold on the region that the Agojie occupy. To stand their ground against the oppressive regime that likes to fight with guns, the Agojie train their young women to become fierce warriors using their hands and ingenuity. Much like the opening sequences of Wonder Woman, Nawi takes on the Diana-like role where she proves to be a well-tested and skilled fighter. Banding together as one cohesive squad, the Agojie strive to fend off threats by the Oyo and Portuguese slave traders, all while Nanisca attempts to bury the sins of her past, haunted by trauma and disconnect.
But The Woman King is not just a showcase for violence and brutality. It does not sugarcoat the pain and torment women of that era experienced. Instead, it highlights their triumphant spirit and willingness to fight against evil, regardless of its form. It is not just a story about female empowerment, either. Although that theme is ever-present. The Woman King is a film about revenge and taking back what is rightfully owed.
Prince-Bythewood's visuals and Akin McKenzie's production design are unmatched, but The Woman King has its flaws. The film's first act is met with action and ferocity, but the second act occasionally drags. The political implications and diplomatic negotiations between the Portuguese and King Ghezo slow the story down. When the third act begins, and the action takes shape once again, it's odd that with so much decapitation and bloodthirsty violence, there isn't actually a drop of blood that's spilled. Possibly due to its PG-13 rating, Prince-Bythewood held off on adding blood to the violence, but it's a strange choice for a film meant to be aggressive.
While this is undoubtedly Viola Davis at her finest, the movie's breakout star is Thuso Mbedu as Nawi. It may be called The Woman King, but it's Mbedu that steals the spotlight in every frame. Her willingness to go the extra mile to demonstrate vulnerability and confidence speaks to her acting range. Even when the film surprises with a twist at the center of the over two-hour epic drama, Mbedu takes what is rightfully hers and goes for it.
The mark of a true warrior.
Ticket Rating: 🎟🎟🎟1/2