Viola Davis towers in a fierce and gut-wrenching portrayal of courage. The Woman King is literally unlike any film I have seen. For the first time, Hollywood delivers a historical epic about and driven by the travails of black female warriors. Davis and a sublime supporting cast grace a sweeping narrative that touches many difficult issues. But their journey is not solely defined by pain and suffering. The characters experience love, joy, and purpose while defending their sacred way of life. The Woman King will engulf you. Davis emerges as a heavyweight contender for every lead actor award.
Set in 1823 West Africa, the kingdom of Dahomey faces an existential threat. Their larger and more powerful tribal adversaries, the Oyo Empire, have attacked Dahomey villages. They kill, rape, and take prisoners to be sold in the deplorable slave trade. Portuguese slavers await at a port coast for their human cargo. The Oyo have amassed guns and horses under the ruthless General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya).
General Nanisca (Davis) leads the Agojie, an elite class of female “virgin soldiers”, on a raid to retake a Dahomey village. She returns to King Ghezo (John Boyega) with a stark warning. The Oyo are infringing on their territory without fear. They must fight back now to send a clear message. Ghezo, more enlightened than his foolish brother, has come to trust Nanisca’s sage counsel.
Meanwhile, the headstrong Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) has disappointed her father for the last time. He drops her off at the palace gates as a gift to the king. Commoners were not allowed inside the palace or to look at the Agojie. Nawi commits to join their ranks and choose her own destiny. She’s noticed by the a**-kicking but humorous Izogie (Lashana Lynch), who senses the girl has significant promise. Nawi’s prideful arrogance doesn’t impress the stern Nanisca.
The Dahomey ready their tribute payment for the arriving Oyo contingent. They have also brought along Malik (Jordan Bolger), a bi-racial Portuguese sailor whose Dahomey mother was stolen as a slave. Nanisca trembles at the sight of the sneering Oba Ade. She’s encountered this horrific man before.
The Woman King is Sophisticated and Layered
The Woman King immerses you in Dahomey life. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Old Guard) does a superb job explaining the nuances of their African tribal culture. King Ghezo is surrounded by his wives, eunuchs, and the Agojie as loyal protectors. Men aren’t allowed inside his section of the palace. Nanisca’s forced to deal with Ghezo’s troublesome favored wife, Shante (Jayme Lawson), and competitive infantry leader (Sivuyile Ngesi). The palace intrigue adds a political element to a sophisticated, layered plot. Nanisca must convince Ghezo that the Dahomey have to change to survive. The Oyo and Europeans want to exploit their land, abundant resources, and bodies.
There are brutal scenes that will make your heart ache. The film realistically depicts the slave trade and savage consequences of war. Rape, torture, and appalling conditions are shown to their ugliest extent. Prisoners were treated worse than animals. I cringed with disgust at the slave auctions and sexual assaults. The Woman King pulls no punches. Audiences need to see how the wealth and stability of western nations were built on the blood of Africa.
Nanisca’s fight to save her people forces painful introspection. She’s an unparalleled fighter and tactician, but also struggles with trauma and regret. Several twists explode like narrative grenades. We see how far, and the awful cost, of Nanisca’s rise to command the Agojie. Davis runs the gamut of acting greatness. She is magnificent emoting the protagonist’s inner turmoil and battlefield prowess. The Woman King stands on her mighty shoulders as one of the year’s best films.
The Woman King is a production of TriStar Pictures, Welle Entertainment, JuVee Productions, Jack Blue Productions, and Entertainment One. It will have a theatrical release on September 16th from Sony Pictures.