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The Woman King ★★★★★



Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Cast: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim and John Boyega

Release: October 4th, 2022 (UK)

There’s a lot to be said about how we engage with history. It reveals two things: how society commemorates historical leaders and events with an elevated legacy for future generations to learn of their successes and their reverence for duty. The other is its inaccessibility, where ‘greatness’ is shown through a white lens, reluctant to reconcile the damaging ramifications relating to the darker exploits of history. For People of Colour, it’s a history frequently denied to us that validates our identity, experiences and existence, either through omittance, suppression or erasure from the cultural mainstream. In the case of the Dahomey Amazons – an elite regiment of female warriors who thrived between the 1600s and 1904, is a historical story not taught in your English textbooks and history lessons.

Watching Gina Prince-Bythewood’s epic blockbuster The Woman King serves as a powerful counterculture to that narrative, a refreshing reclamation of the stories not told or invested in nearly enough. The Woman King understands the gravity of bringing the story of the Dahomey Kingdom into the light. History is ugly, complicated and complicit – an aspect Dana Stevens’ nuanced screenplay does not sanitise in tackling the Dahomey’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. And true to the film’s essence, if you weren’t aware of the Dahomey Kingdom before, to quote Notorious BIG, “if you don’t know, now you know.”

It’s a significant evolution from Prince-Bythewood’s previous film, The Old Guard. The cinematic canvas here is extensive, utilising Dana Stevens’ script to actively dispel any one-dimensional myths about African cultures to represent a living and breathing diaspora. The action scenes are brutally violent yet brilliantly choreographed (with no shaky cam in sight). But at its heart, the same pathos to her directing remains – telling stories through a female gaze. Malcolm X famously said that Black women were the most disrespected – a valuable point when Hollywood has modelled its storytelling machine on that same problematic history whilst dictating roles for Black female characters as insignificantly as possible (e.g. slaves, mammy figures or the best Black friend). The Woman King – in every single scene – uplifts and empowers, ensuring Black women are front and centre at all times. To feel that energy and presence amongst an engaged cinema crowd was incredible.

It begins with a warrior’s cry. Led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), the Agojie slowly emerge from the long grass – weapons primed, skin oiled (to avoid any easy advantage for the enemy) with an unshakeable fierceness ready for battle. It’s the beginning of an all-out war between the Dahomey and the Oyo Empire, and in preparing the kingdom, the general begins training for the next generation of warriors.

Borrowing a similar technique from The Old Guard, the film works best when the Agojie’s intense training methods are viewed through the eyes of Nawi (The Underground Railroad’s Thuso Mbedu), a defiant young woman who enters the “palace of women” after failing to marry the older suitors arranged by her father. Through her trials and tribulations, she begins to embrace her new warrior family while unearthing dark secrets from her past. 

Bringing the star quality, Davis’ leadership is fearless, protecting her tribe and her Dahomean people from further harm and exploitation, a purpose made more complicated by King Ghezo (John Boyega) and the kingdom’s cooperation to sell their people to the Oyo and the Europeans. But underneath the steely determination is a woman whose pain and trauma are the fire that fuels her motivation. The admiration behind Davis’s performance is how seamlessly she embodies that vulnerable depth and nuance amongst the action in a role, unlike anything she has done in her career.

Mbedu also revels in that magnificence. Emotionally anchored to Davis yet wonderfully independent, the generational conflict between duty, responsibility, culture and authority is always questioned when they’re on screen together. Some scenes easily could have descended into overwrought melodrama, but the balance between their exploits always remains compelling.

It serves as a testament to the production that not only are audiences treated to a Davis and Mbedu masterclass but how that energy translates to the larger themes at play. Prince-Bythewood’s thrilling direction never shies away from the subservient analogy, where women are frequently positioned in scenarios where their agency and self-worth are taken away from them, be it an arranged marriage or suffering the afflictions of slavery under the Oyo empire. And in the opportune moments afforded, re-emphases the power of pride, sisterhood and unity when battling for their freedoms.

Both Davis and Mbedu will undoubtedly receive the plaudits for their outstanding performances, but Lashana Lynch as Izogie came to slay! As Nawi’s mentor, she takes her under her wing and guides her through Agojie customs while taking zero prisoners for her on-screen fighting efforts. John Boyega also excels as the film’s levity amongst the brutality, encapsulating that ‘Nigerian Uncle’ vibe that is completely spot on for those who are familiar with the accent and portrayal. Sheila Atim (The Underground Railroad) also shines – and thankfully – given a role suitable for her impeccable talents, especially after her underutilised appearances in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Disney’s Pinocchio (2022).

The Woman King is cinema at its finest. It speaks to a generation who understands the importance of representation and couples that enthusiasm as an unapologetic celebration of Black womanhood. As one of the best films of the year, this historical, crowd-pleasing spectacle is exactly the film Hollywood – and the world – needs right now.

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