The Woman King puts a shining Viola Davis in the center of a raw, emotional powerhouse that gives viewers everything they could want in an action epic.
Well, if Wakanda Forever ends up not being good, I now know we’ll still at least have one awesome film about African warriors this year. The Woman King, inspired by true events of the 1800s, features the Agojie, an all-female unit of warriors who protect the African Kingdom of Dahomey. Some are former captives of the kingdom, and others, like young adult Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), are those who fail fall in line with the kingdom’s usual roles for women. General Nanisca (Viola Davis) leads the training of the newest wave of potential recruits, including Nawi. They’re put to the test when relationships with other kingdoms become strained, partially because their own king (John Boyega) wishes to change Dahomey’s involvement in the European slave trade. Alliances get tangled, tensions boil over, blood is shed, and Nanisca is forced to confront a past that comes back to haunt her.
The Woman King immediately caught my eye when I saw its trailer, even though I knew nothing about the real-life Agojie. I went in hoping for badass action, gorgeous cinematography and settings, and epic grit, and I ended up getting all of that. But I was not expecting to fall so in love with its characters and the fulfilling, empowering journeys they go on. This is one of the most dynamic, magnetic film casts I’ve seen in a while, and a lot of that is thanks to the time that’s devoted to fleshing them out. A lot of the film’s early portion focuses on these characters simply interacting with each other, sharing experiences and thoughts, and training for battle, going long stretches without any big action sequence taking place. You connect with these people very quickly especially with how their hardened demeanors born from battle and hardships are carefully balanced with more lighthearted banter and organic humor. Everyone has these qualities to varying degrees while still being unique among the group.
This further pays dividends in the endgame as several arcs and emotional threads are paid off, some of which you may not have even fully realized had been put into place to begin with. A few characters have information and backstory slowly revealed to us, keeping the momentum of the story constantly steady and building. You want to know more about how this society works, and you start to see how its traditions and history have empowered the women in some ways but damaged them in others. I was very surprised to see that African kingdoms like Dahomey actively engaged in slave trades, which helped them prosper but has furthered the fracturing of a unified people. The Agojie have put themselves through physical and psychological turmoil to keep themselves strong in battle, but potentially at the risk of losing their humanity and without the true power to make the changes they want. Everyone has something to learn from one another. Their conventional wisdom shapes and molds others around them, but it itself is also challenged as maybe not always the best way to live one’s life. Everyone’s identifiable, but no one’s perfect.
Leave it to Viola Davis to generate an award-worthy performance out of a historical epic. She’s nothing short of raw, constantly evolving our perception of her character and bringing to life one of the most multi-faceted characters of her archetype. Nanisca shows an increasing level of vulnerability while still exuding strength. She’s harsh on Nawi but still shows a buried compassion that’s even more touching when you look back on the entire story. She can be soft-spoken and calm, but she can also tear her opponents apart with animalistic fury. I don’t want to short-shrift any of the other performances, all of which bring dignity, charisma, and grit to their roles. Every single actor shines and should at least be in the conversation for award recognition, with my three favorites outside of Davis being Mbedu, Boyega, and Lashana Lynch as another warrior and friend to Nanisca. Everyone is so likeable and fascinating, to a point where if the entire movie was just them living their lives day-to-day with no action at all, I’d probably be okay with that.
But that’s obviously not all people are going to want to see. They’ll also be expecting these same characters fighting, and that’s done remarkably well too. You feel the weight, sweat, and importance of every move that’s made on the battlefield. The choreography is brutal and realistic while still having a slick style that’s a lot of fun to watch. The Woman King is PG-13, but it’s a hard PG-13, definitely closer to an R than a PG. I’ve honestly seen much more sanitized violence in some R-rated films than in here. The violence isn’t the most graphic you’ll ever see, but the intensity and brutality are still gotten across very effectively, and that’s what’s most important to me.
I wouldn’t call The Woman King a greatly large-scale experience. Even the most epic shots have a smaller sense of intimacy to them. The framing is trying to make you feel like you’re in these locations at the ground level more than they’re trying to show off, which works perfectly here. Make no mistake, though; this is a visually stunning film. The cinematography from Polly Morgan lets the colors, light, and misty fogs leap off the screen and wash over you, and every location catches your eye instantly and feels like a genuinely lived-in location. This is top-tier production design that matches the film’s grand yet intimate framing and writing. It’s, again, not extremely showy, but the level of detail and sense of immersion are second-to-none. The same can be said for Terence Blanchard’s sweeping, tribal score. I’ve loved every single score I’ve heard from him, particularly in his many collaborations with Spike Lee, but this may be my favorite of his to date.
If I could only use one word to describe The Woman King as a historical action epic, it would be “quintessential”. Everything about it, from the layered arcs, to the intriguing themes, to the perfectly realized environments, to the exciting, emotional action, is all absolutely quintessential. The Woman King may not have quite the same level of universal appeal as, say, Top Gun: Maverick earlier this year, due to its extreme violence and slower pacing, but it’s a similar level of crowd-pleasing. I think a vast majority of people who go out and see it are going to be similarly enthralled from start to finish, in its biggest, bloodiest moments and its smallest, quietest moments. And when I say “go out and see it,” I mean head to the biggest theater screen you can find to experience the film in all of its glory. This is an all-encompassing powerhouse that gives you everything you’d want, and it does so in a fresh, raw, masterful way.
I’ll admit to having slept on director Gina Prince-Bythewood until now, but after seeing what she’s done here, I’m showing up to whatever she does next. Her voice and style come through crystal-clear and are more valuable now than they’ve ever been. We rarely see this specific demographic so heavily featured in these kinds of powerful roles, and The Woman King is proof of how equally important it is to have someone of that same demographic behind the camera, and what such a perspective from such talent is capable of. The Woman King is one of my favorite films to come out in the past few years, and I’m going to be singing its praises constantly to make sure it gets the recognition it richly deserves.
The Woman King premiered at TIFF on September 9, 2022 and will be released theatrically on September 16. Read our list of films to watch at TIFF 2022.