‘The Woman King’ movie review: A magnificent Viola Davis powers this great historical adventure

‘The Woman King,’ powered by strong Black women, has great performances by a towering cast that effortlessly projects a vanished majesty, magnificent costumes, and heart-stopping battles

February 06, 2023 01:01 pm | Updated February 07, 2023 01:11 pm IST

A still from ‘The Woman King’

A still from ‘The Woman King’ | Photo Credit: Sony Pictures

It is no surprise that director Gina Prince-Bythewood has counted The Last of the Mohicans, Braveheart, and Gladiator as inspirations for the electrifying The Woman King. There is all the action and adventure of these films powered by strong Black women instead of white saviours.

The Woman King (English)
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Cast: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, John Boyega
Runtime: 135 minutes
Storyline: The story of Nanisca, a mighty Agojie warrior, and Nawi, a new recruit, set against the war between the Oyo and Dahomey in West Africa in 1823

In 1823, the West African kingdom of Dahomey has a new ruler, King Ghezo (John Boyega). While the Oyo Empire is all-powerful, Dahomey has a weapon of their own, the Agojie, a group of highly trained female warriors.

Slavers buy men, women and children from Africa’s rulers in return for guns and money. General Nanisca (Viola Davis) leads a raid and rescues Dahomean women captured by the Oyo.

Training a new batch of women to face the retaliation from the Oyo that is surely coming, Nanisca meets Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a wilful girl whose father gives her to Agojie as she is unwilling to marry the men he chooses for her — Nawi reasonably refuses to marry anyone who will raise a hand at her.

The training sequences are touching and thrilling in equal measure. Nawi finds a friend in the battle-hardened Izogie (Lashana Lynch). She also helps fellow student Fumbe (Masali Baduza) even at the risk of losing her hard-won advantage at the final.

When the Portuguese slaver, Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), and his friend, Malik (Jordan Bolger), whose mother was Dahomian, arrive as part of the Oyo party, all sorts of events are set in motion, including Nawi’s befriending of Malik, who like every new age bleeding heart has come to Dahomey to find his roots.

Davis is magnificent as Nanisca, at once the regal general, the resilient warrior, the caring and vulnerable mother, the shrewd politician, and the laconic friend. Mbedu’s Nawi is perhaps a version of what Cora from The Underground Railroad would have turned into. She is an apt foil to Nanisca — unruly, resourceful, loyal and respectful, as is Boyega as Nanisca’s king, who is smart enough to surround himself with experts.

Another The Underground Railroad alum, Sheila Atim, plays Nanisca’s oldest and most trusted friend Amenza. Apart from strong allies and friends, Nanisca also needs a truly gnarly villain and that is provided in the burly, snarling General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya).

Maria Bello conceived of the story on a visit to Benin where she learnt of the history of the Agojie who defended Dahomey from the 17th century to the 19th century. The costumes are magnificent (that jewellery is to die for), the towering cast effortlessly projects a vanished majesty and the battles are delicious heart-stoppers.

The cinematography is thoughtful, with no attempt to exoticise or other-ise Africa amidst the lovely lush frames. That hint of a trunk and wise, grey eyes was on the right side of emotive. While there have been murmurs about historical accuracy, The Woman King is a historical adventure of the best kind.

The Woman King is currently running in theatres

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