The Woman King (2022) Review
WE ARE DAHOMEY!
Throughout history, African American women have played important part in developing to be the “unsung” heroes throughout a wide variety of roles in society, science, civil rights, and entertainment. While faced with variety of obstacles to overcome in amongst both their gender based and / or their racial division amongst the public, women of African American have prevailed to make their mark on history, with some being pioneers to certain fields; paving the way for future generations to follow in their footsteps. Given the amount of inspiration and empowerment within their stories of triumph and struggles in the face of adversity, Hollywood has taken an interest to shine its camera cinematic light onto several individuals. This includes (but not limited to) the highly intelligent young girl’s journey to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2006’s Akeelah and the Bee, a group of colored women becoming celebrated individuals in the NASA space program in 2016’s Hidden Figures, the depiction Harriet Tubman’s struggle and prevailing attempts in the Underground railroad in 2019’s Harriet, the incomparable and sensational voice of Aretha Franklin in 2021’s Respect. Now, Tristar Pictures, TSG Entertainment, and director Gina Prince-Bythewood present the latest film that showcases the indomitable strength and resourcefulness of African American women in the movie titled The Woman King. Does the film find its meaning within its historical representation or is just a flashy epic that’s more cinematic than resounding depiction?
Set in West Africa in 1823, the kingdom of Dahomey is ruled by the young and new King Ghezo (John Boyega), who employs an elite collection of female warriors known as the Agojie. These fierce women defend the land with extreme power and fighting prowess, facing off against enemies from a neighboring warring tribe called the Oyo, who seek dominion over Dahomey’s realm, using weapons and transportation provided by slavers hoping to use the locals to claim power over the untamed land. The Agojie are led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis) is aware of what’s happening to the continent, driven to defend her people with a highly trained pack female warriors, including close confidants Izogle (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Shella Atim). Joining the ranks of the Agojie is Nawl (Thuso Mbedu), a new recruit who channels her restless energy, proving her bravery as the unit is challenged during various battles with the Oyo’s forces. Feeling uneasy about Ghezo’s participation in the slave trade, Nanisca hopes to lead her people in a different way, facing a major push from the Oyo as they march to destroy their enemy. Yet, Nanisca’s judgement is cloudy as she feels a strange attachment towards the young Nawl as well as pursing her own personal vendetta against the Oyo’s new leader, General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya).
THE GOOD / THE BAD
It goes without saying that history is sprinkled with brilliance and talents of African American women that have brought us (humanity in general) so pioneering efforts that have changed our world for the better; striving to be something more than what society had deemed them to be by the color of their skin. There is no doubt about it that Hollywood has taken an interesting in presenting tales that depict African American women with indomitable strength and miraculous talent in certain fields. While this isn’t an uncommon thing, the usage of projecting their particular narratives (underneath a cinematic light) has brought more and more stories to the silver screen, shining light on their greatness and how society (or situations) tested their determination in order make their mark upon history and for that matter…. the world. The movies mentioned above are some of the clear highlighted views of particular women that have had their life stories brought to us, with some being famous place in history such as Harriet Tubman in Harriet or Aretha Franklin in Respect and could be considered household names by many. Yet, I didn’t know anything about the likes of Kathrine Gobel Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson and their contributions made in the space program, which I found Hidden Figures to be quite profound. And I do understand that there are far more African American women out there that had their stories told through the usage of movies and TV series, so I do apologize that don’t name them all, but ones that I mentioned are some examples. In the end, with Hollywood industry drawing more inclusion towards various races and genders, it goes without saying that many more tales of African American Women (both fictional and non-fictional) will take more of prevalent position in the various entertainment platforms at their disposal. And I, for one, welcome it, especially the ones that I never heard of before.
Naturally, this brings me back around to talking about The Woman King, a 2022 historical epic drama that focuses not only on an African Kingdom during the times of the European slave trade, but also on the importance women in that tribe. To be quite honest, I really can’t recall hearing much about this movie when it was announced. After doing some research on it, the idea for such a film dated all the way back in 2015, with the project being tossed around every now and again for several years, before it was finally greenlit in 2020 and the production for the film began the following year. Again, I didn’t hear about the film until the studio released the film’s movie trailer online and in theaters (I think I saw it more at the movie theaters during the “coming attractions” preview than any other movie previous out there). From the trailer preview alone, the movie looked quite interesting, with main focus in placed on an all-female warrior group in an African kingdom and dealing with harsh enemy. It definitely got my attention immediately, especially with someone like actress Viola Davis in the lead role. So, with my interest heightened, I did plan on seeing The Woman King when it arrived in theaters on September 16th, 2022. I had to wait a few days after its initial release as my work schedule got a little heavy. Sadly, I got covid shortly after that, so I had to delay of getting my review done for this historical epic. Now, that I am covid free, I finally have the time to share my personal thoughts on The Woman King. And what did I think of it? Well, I really liked it. Despite having a few narrative problems here and there, The Woman King is a powerful and stunning action epic with an engaging tale to tell and fantastic ensemble cast. The film demonstrates the strength of women through battle, with the feature representing the African culture through the usage of visual setting and other nuances.
The Woman King is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose previous directorial works includes such movies like Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees, and The Old Guard. Given her past background of directorial works and the project she has done, Prince-Bythewood makes The Woman King her most ambitious project to date, which does feel appropriate given the feature’s size, scope, and symbolism towards both women and African American. To that end, I think that Prince-Bythewood did quite an exceptional job in tackling such a project like this, with a palpable story to tell and having such acting talents such as Viola Davis attached to the film. Perhaps one of the best aspects that the movie has to offer is within how the narrative is mostly spilt between two main leads characters of Nanisca and Nawl. From there trailer alone, it looked like the movie was going to be surrounded by Nanisca (Viola Davis), but (to my surprise) the movie also focused on Nawl, a young woman journey into the Agojie. The intertwining of these two particular character narratives plays an important piece in The Woman King, which helps build the foundation for a very character driven piece. Some have called this particular film to something of 2000’s Gladiator and, while I think Ridley Scott’s Roman epic still reigns supreme in my opinion, I can definitely see the similarities; finding both films have more of a character driven moment, big, budgeted action scenes and placing a heavy emphasis on inner personal turmoil / drama on doing what is right for the people. Prince-Bythewood seems to keep the notion slightly in mind and makes The Woman King have a very blockbuster-ish feeling within the historical epic drama. The result is something that definitely works and something that has a captivating and poignant effect throughout.
The credit for the feature’s script goes to Dana Stevens along with Maria Bello, which tells a very character drama endeavor within this depiction of the kingdom of Dahomey and their battle against the Oyo. The movie’s narrative has it all…. drama, action, character build moments, revenge, courage, etc. It’s all there and, while there’s a few hiccups in trying to tackle all of these pieces together in a collective and cohesive manner, the end result is something that makes for some grand cinematic epic for storytelling. It is also clear that in the film’s marketing campaign the picture’s script proudly displays the empowerment of women and female inspiring moments. While the movie does tout that mantra throughout the movie, it never becomes monotonous or cringeworthy, with Prince-Bythewood handling those particular influences and nuances quite well; feeling more genuine rather than just eye-rolling inducing of females being strong and brave just for the sake of modern times. The movie also brings up the subject of slavery, which (of course) is a very sensitive subject to depict, and while it’s nothing incredible harsh and raw like something like Amadeus or 12 Years a Slave, Prince-Bythewood doesn’t shy away from displaying the cold reminder of this practice. In fact, the question of slavery (something that the kingdom of Dahomey) participate in, is brought into question in the movie and actually brings up the fundamentals of outlawing. It’s something that I wasn’t expecting in the film, and I do appreciate Prince-Bythewood for shedding light on it.
Another importance piece that Prince-Bythewood does in making the film work (and work well) is in the various action sequences that The Woman King has to offer. Indeed, the action is there in the movie and delivers on some great scenes of visceral combat of weapons and stylish fighting prowess. Naturally, the film’s movie trailer showcased this particular point, but thought it was going to be only sprinkled throughout the picture, with a bit more focus primarily on the drama aspect. Boy, I was wrong about that. From the opening salvo of the feature, Prince-Bythewood sets the stage for a timely action set-pieces, which showcases the hardened battle and skillfulness that Dahomey’s Agojie; finding how powerful and strong that these elite women are. This is even further examined with the character of Nawi, who enters the ranks of the Agojie as new recruit and showing the harsh training that these women have to undergo. From there, the movie’s action sequences continue to deliver some top-notch execution and staging, with some nifty and exciting moments to be had within those sequences.
Another particular positive that Prince-Bythewood does in helming this film is in the cultural aspect and examination of such that are presented in The Woman King. This, of course, was to be expected in a cinematic motion picture that focuses on an African kingdom (and its people) during the early half of the 1800s, but it’s not so much “in-your-face” or trying extremely hard to prove its point. Prince-Bythewood understands and harmonies this cultural aspect of African natives by approaching of tribal nuances from West Africa to display and appreciate. This includes the depiction of the community of Dahomey through the usage of dancing, chanting, rituals, wardrobe, make-up, and other customs. It’s something that makes the usage of the film’s background setting (more on that below) and it’s particular aspect that I felt that was well-founded, cultural importance on a major feature film, and in the depiction of a culture through a media platform. All in all, well done in such utilization of displaying culture importance in the integration of the movie’s story and its setting. In the end, I was quite surprised to see how much I liked The Woman King, and that Prince-Bythewood did a highly commendable job in bringing the conflict that the kingdom of Dahomey faced (along with several individuals) to light in an entertaining and meaningful way.
In the presentation category, The Woman King is absolutely gorgeous historical period piece epic that shines through its visual telling and makes its background setting come alive with grace, realism, and appreciation for the culture that it is depicting. Rather than just having simplistic understanding of African culture, Prince-Bythewood and her team fully realize the kingdom of Dahomey (and its neighboring areas) to make such a rich and vivid African setting that feels genuine and in no way feels stereotypical. Through environments and set pieces and even costume wardrobe attires / outfits, the visual aspect presentation looks authenticity and have a quality of layer that speak to the film’s primary setting of West Africa and for fully fleshed out world. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” team, including Akin McKenzie (production design), Renee Filipova (set decorations), Gersha Phillips (costume designs), the entire make-up team, and the entire art direction team, for delivering such a very vibrant and vivid world in their undertaking of the feature’s background and setting nuances. As mentioned above, the film’s action scenes are quite unique and very gritty (for cinematic purposes), which I do have to praise the movie’s choreography team in their staging and executing such visceral sequences of fighting. Speaking of cinematography, the cinematic work done by Polly Morgan is quite dramatic and exceptional, especially in the usage of various camera angles and shadowing effects. All in all, The Woman King is cinematic and feels just as epic as Prince-Bythewood wanted to achieve. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Terence Blanchard, is solid all the way around, which utilizes some compelling musical composition throughout the movie, with some being quite dramatic (bold and striking) and others sweeter and more muted (for character dialogue sequences). In addition, I like how Blanchard infuses his score with African influences; a result that plays quite well within the context of the film’s narrative and setting. Great soundtrack!
There are a couple of criticisms that I had with The Woman King that, while not hindering the feature in any way, but sort of left the project a little bit clunky and disorganized slightly within its execution. Perhaps the best problem that the movie faces is in the overall structure that the endeavor is shaped to be. There is a lot to unpack in this particular narrative, with several characters weaving in and out of the story and several context plot point elements to entangled as their layered together. So, while I do praise Prince-Bythewood for her bring this tale to light (or rather underneath a cinematic light), I felt that the story for the movie struggles to find a proper balance while trying to juggle many of the sub-plots in an organized fashion. Because of this, the film’s script, which was penned by Dana Stevens and Maria Bello, comes off as a little bit of a lopsided notion, especially as it tries to navigate the interwoven threads. This is most notable in some of the sub plots constructs, including the somewhat rivalry between one of Ghezo’s wives and Nanisca, Malik’s interest Dahomey, a vague relationship between Malik and Nawi, and a few others. It definitely makes the whole endeavor feel a bit more dynamic, but these subplots are a bit limp and could’ve been easily expanded upon for a more “full circle” feature film. Because of this, The Woman King has a lot to go through and some of the payoffs of these sub-narrative threads (characters and story plot points) don’t exactly have a meaningful or satisfying than the way it was probably intended in the script / storyboarding process.
This also makes the movie have a sort of uneven pacing balance in a few areas. Again, there a lot to cover in The Woman King, so with the script trying to encompass all of this (along with Prince-Bythewood’s direction), the film struggles in a few areas; hitting snags of pacing problems as it tries to fully realizes this African epic of power and understanding. As mentioned, the movie is quite an ambitious project to undertake and, while I do praise Prince-Bythewood efforts, it goes without saying that the movie could’ve had a slightly better finesse in wanting to generate a better pacing for the endeavor. Another point of criticism that I had with the movie is that the climatic ending battle also feels a little bit clunky within its overall execution. Better yet…. I don’t know executed as it was choregraphed / staged quite well (from beginning to end), but what I am talking about is it significance to the feature. I definitely get what Prince-Bythewood (and the script) was trying to convey and definitely closes a lot of the film’s narrative threads in a meaningful way that one could say it was a little poetic in the battle itself. That being said, it doesn’t really have that much of a resounding “final battle” feeling and I kind of wished that the movie had a more grandeur climax ending with protagonist and antagonist fighting instead of what was presented. Maybe that’s a personal criticism, but I just like the ending battle scene could’ve been more epic and be more of that “final confrontation” feeling.
The cast in The Woman King is indeed a solid one across the board, with every single acting talent involved on this project bring a sense of quality acting towards their characters. Some get more attention than others, but I think that’s more of the script shaping of things (as mentioned above) rather than the actors and actresses selected for this endeavor. Leading the charge (and headlining the movie) is Academy Award Nominee actress Viola Davis, who plays the main central character role of Nanisca, female general of the Agojie in the kingdom of Dahomey. Davis, who is known for her roles in The Help, Fences, and Suicide Squad, has certainly made a name for herself throughout her career, with the talented actress becoming a powerhouse throughout her various projects. Heck, her acting (and the roles she plays) speak for themselves. So, it comes as no surprise that Davis would want to play such a fierce and strong-willed character such as Nanisca and she plays it tremendously well. As Nanisca, Davis is a natural at playing the character, effortlessly playing the role with enough steely leadership bravado, yet still has moments where she is vulnerable and a bit compassionate. It’s a testament to Davis’s talent that such a character works in the film, with lesser hands Nanisca could’ve been played as a stereotypical harden general leader. Thankfully, Davis or Prince-Bythewood (or even the script by Stevens) never imagines Nanisca to be such a cliché protagonist and the end result is something makes the film stand strong and proud.
While I actually thought that Davis’s Nanisca was going to be the sole lead actress in the film, I was completely mistaken by that, for young actress Thuso Mbedu plays the second lead in The Woman King as Nawi, a new recruit in the company of the Agojie. While not much of a household in comparison to her co-star lead, Mbedu, who is known for her roles in Scandal!, Shuga, and The Underground Railroad, comes into The Woman King as probably her most ambitious and blockbuster-ish project in her career, with the actress ready and willing to participate in a movie that must demand a lot of her…. both in her physical prowess, but also in characterization acting in her role of Nawi. The result is something that wholesomely works with Mbedu do a fantastic in playing Nawi, a character that is young and feisty and must adhere to the strict discipline of the Agojie ways. We (as the viewer) see the upbringing of seeing Nawi’s transformation into wayward recruit to proud young warrior and I think that Mbedu does a great job in displaying a wide array of emotion within her character. Plus, I do have to mention that both Davis and Mbedu have great on-screen chemistry, which help build upon the strength and character builds for both Nanisca and Nawi.
The film’s secondary supporting characters in the movie certainly have their moments, with most make the most of their time in the spotlight. None does better than this than actresses Lashana Lynch (Captain Marvel and No Time to Die) and Shelia Atim (The Underground Railroad and Bruised) as two Agojie warriors Izogie and Amenza. Lynch is perhaps the biggest “scene stealer” in the movie, with character of Izogie getting a lot of the film’s comedy, yet still shows how tough and fierce she is. As for Atim, she definitely gets show her screen presence in the movie as she proves her acting chops and talent mostly during the second half of the feature. Together, both Lynch and Atim are terrific and their characters Izogie and Amenza help bolster both Davis’s Nanisca and Mbedu’s Nawi. Behind these two, actor John Boyega (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and Detroit) does a good job in playing King Ghezo, the presiding young ruler of Dahomey. Some people thought that Boyega’s accent was awkward in the movie (a bit off-putting), but I actually liked it as the actor acted perfectly fine to me. There isn’t much to him beyond a conflicted ruler on what he must decide to do with the security of his kingdom (and his people), so there isn’t much personal growth development in the film. That being said, the character of Ghezo is fine as he never overacts and plays with more subtlety and dignity…like a ruler would be.
Next, actor Jimmy Odukoya (Cooked Up Love and Oga! Pastor) does a fine job in playing the film’s main antagonist character as General Oba Ade, the ruler of Dahomey’s warring tribe…. the Oyo. Odukoya certainly has the physical presence to be the main bad guy and, while there is plenty of reason why Nanisca wants him dead (for both personal reasons and for Dahomey), there isn’t much to him beyond being the big bad in movie. Still, Odukoya’s Oba Ade makes for a worth adversary for the main characters to face off in the end. Behind him, actor Jordan Bolger (Tom & Jerry and The Book of Boba Fett) plays the character Malik, a European who comes to Africa looking to buys slaves and has a personal interest seeking out the people of Dahomey. While Bolger’s acting is perfectly fine and does have a few snippets of poignancy in the film’s narrative, there is very little to care about Malik’s involvement in The Woman King. There is a feign semi-connection between him and Nawi in the movie, but it matters little in the grand scheme of things. In fact, I think that Stevens script could’ve (and should’ve) reworked Malik’s part in the feature and could’ve had a better understanding of him. It just comes as shoehorned plot line. As a sidenote to Malik, actor Hero Fiennes Tiffin (Private Peaceful and After) plays the character of Santos Ferreira, an accomplice companion to Malik, who ventures to Africa seeking fortune and slaves. Although, much like I said several paragraphs above, the usage of Europeans who are looking for fame and slaves is offered a clunky and Santos is sadly one of the weakest characters…..mostly there for a plot device point and nothing else.
The rest of the cast, including actress Thando Diomo (Sincerely, Camille and King Shaka) as Kelu, actress Angelique Kidjo (The Braves and Christmas Flow) as Meunon, actress Masali Baduza (Trackers and Noughts + Crosses) as Fumbe, actress Jayme Lawson (The First Lady and The Batman) as Shante, actress Adrienne Warren (Women of the Movement and Blue Bloods) as Ode, model Zozibini Tunzi (Miss Universe 2019) as Efe, actress Makgotso M (The Girl from St. Agnes and Survive) as Iniya, actor Sivuyile Ngesi (Dam and Invictus) as Migan, and actor Julian Tennon (Dazed and Confused and Friday Night Lights) as Moru, are delegated to minor supporting characters in the movie. Most of these players in The Woman King might have only a few scenes and / or in the background at times, but all still bring their respective characters with enough physical presence to make them noteworthy in their limited screen time.
The African kingdom of Dahomey stands upon the precipice of great conflict and change as General Nanisca leads the charge against the realm’s enemies as well as guiding young Nawi through the trials of becoming a Agojie in the movie The Woman King. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest film visions a gritty and realistic cinematic lens of a historical African epic that captures both character dramatics and action nuances in marriage that works for a compelling tale of honor, self-discovery, and community. While the feature hits a few minor snags within its organization and execution of its narrative threads (as well as few other minor complaints), the movie still stands tall and proud by overcoming those shortcomings, with especial thanks to Prince-Bythewood direction, a solid representation of African culture, an intriguing dual narrative of its main lead characters, well-choreographed action scenes, a fantastic presentations, and some great acting talents across the board (most notably Davis, Lynch, and Mbedu). Personally, I really liked this movie. As I said above, I was interested to see this movie, but I really didn’t have much of ultra-high expectations nor excessive anticipation to see it. To that end, I was wonderfully surprised on how much I enjoyed the film. It was well-acted, told an engaging tale, well-respecting the values of empowerment and African culture nuances, and just a great production presentation. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is indeed a well-founded “highly recommend” one, with the picture being a moving and memorable feature that’s definitely a crowd-pleaser amongst its viewers as well as being a strong contender for the upcoming award season. In conclusion, it’s crystal clear for what The Woman King wants to convey and delivers on that promise (and more), with a stunning historical epic that’s filled great character dynamic, meaningful storytelling, and the inspiration appreciation that women can just be as strong and fierce as men. I close how this review with the line from the movie that echoes wholeheartedly in the spirit of The Woman King… “We are the spear of victory! We are the blade of freedom! We are Dahomey”
4.5 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: September 16th, 2022
Reviewed On: October 21st, 2022
The Woman King is 135 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing material, thematic content, brief language, and partial nudity