Most epic films with elaborately choreographed battle scenes and rousing crowd-pleasing moments are overwhelmingly male-dominated. From Spartacus to Braveheart, they employ men both in front of and behind the camera. The Woman King feels both like an impressive addition to this genre and an attempt to flip it entirely on its head. Not only are the Agojie – the all-female Dahomey military regiment – all women, but the tender and intimate moments between women matter just as much as the well-choreographed fight scenes. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights, The Old Guard) has crafted a film that feels both like a return to the sort of films that don’t get made anymore and an astounding new achievement.
The film is set in West Africa in 1823, where King Ghezo (a regal and commanding John Boyega) has just taken control of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Nanisca (Viola Davis, in one of her best performances) is the general of the Agojie and is determined to ensure they win their fights against the stronger Oyo Empire. But she’s also desperate to find a way to limit the Dahomey involvement in the slave trade, despite how lucrative it is, calling it a poison on their people.
The Woman King portrays the Dahomey as an advanced and flourishing civilization. Many have ignored the intricacies of different African kingdoms during this time period, but the film embraces it. The production design by Akin McKenzie and costume design by Gersha Phillips are stunning, as is the hair and makeup design, all of which help immerse the audience in the period. But the Dahomey are a kingdom with problems: European traders whose pursuit of money is greater than their morals and a new ruler who needs to prove his might to the other African tribes.
One young girl is caught up in her own problems. Nawi (The Underground Railroad’s Thuso Mbedu) is headstrong and determined; she has no interest in being married off to the highest bidder by her abusive guardian. When she finally pushes him too far, he offers her up to the king and she is given the opportunity to join the Agojie. Nawi leaps at the chance, not only set on proving herself the best warrior, but also forming close bonds with the other women. Izogie (a warm, but fierce Lashana Lynch) becomes a mentor to her and watches over her training sessions as she grows into one of their best young recruits.
But Nawi struggles with the obedience expected of the Agojie. She questions why no one is allowed to marry or have children and her persistence leads to old secrets being revealed. The thrills of the girls being trained are complemented by softer moments of friendship and camaraderie. The film is a true ensemble piece and each actor, from Sheila Atim as Amenza to Adrienne Warren as Ode, holds her own. But Mbedu is particularly impressive for the way in which she matches Davis herself and gives Nawi enough heart to keep her from ever feeling like a stereotypical Strong Female Character.
Like any cinematic historical epic, The Woman King takes some liberties with its historical accuracy, but it’s rooted in the truth. Dana Stevens’s screenplay displays great nuance in how it portrays the African involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and it’s dedicated to examining the topic from many angles and perspectives, neither laying too much blame on the African people nor infantilizing them. It’s also honest about the threats that an all-female force like the Agojie must have faced, from sexual assault to resentment from other women in their community.
While it’s fantastic to see these women kicking ass in battle against men who doubt them, it’s even better to see them healing from their trauma and caring for each other. Between the politics of a new regime and the moral complexity of the slave trade in Africa, a story about both blood and found family emerges.
What might be most exciting about The Woman King though is the way in which it places Black women both in front of and behind the camera in telling this story. Price-Bythewood shows that she can film an intense and bloody battle scene, like the one that begins the film, but also that she can create emotional heart wrenching scenes between a pair of actors. It’s a tale of sacrifice and bravery, but also of friendship and love and the bonds between women. It’s this combination of the softer quiet moments and the large-scale blockbuster action-type sequences that makes The Woman King a film that will sweep audiences of all kinds into its tale.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. TriStar Pictures will release The Woman King only in theaters on September 16.