The Woman King would be inconceivable at nearly any other point in history.
For generations, Hollywood insisted that Black stories and creators weren’t worthy of elevation and celebration. The industry still struggles with the ramifications of that tainted legacy. (For confirmation, one only has to view the racist social media reactions to The Little Mermaid and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.) A film about a West African kingdom battling the tangible and existential crises of European colonialism, told by majority-Black creatives? It’s a miracle.
Luckily, director Gina Prince-Bythewood is a master at delivering miracles.
The Woman King tells the real-life story of the Agojie, an all-women battalion protecting the kingdom of Dahomey. The Agojie, led by general Nanisca (Viola Davis), are so revered that it’s frowned upon to look at them in procession. Beloved as they are, they are not immune to the growing threats outside their borders, specifically from the Oyo Empire and the Portuguese slave traders they sell people to. Nanisca seeks recruits to defend the kingdom, including Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a young orphaned woman whose adopted father sold her to King Ghezo (John Boyega). Ambitious, skilled, and reckless, Nawi is an asset and liability to her newfound sisters and learns, through the Agojie’s rigorous training program, the rewards and costs of her chosen duty.
Any film directed by Prince-Bythewood offers more than a plot synopsis can capture. The Woman King is a stunningly comprehensive exploration of the African diasporic identity at that time. The film isn’t satisfied with single dimensions or surface-level discussions. Prince-Bythewood gives her characters the space – and grace – to be intricate, complex, and contradictory. It is especially stark in Dahomey’s reckoning with its passive yet impactful involvement in the European slave trade. It is an undeniable stain on the kingdom’s sociopolitical program, but what is more valuable to its people: a fragile but steady peace or idealism that precedes oblivion? The answers aren’t easy. The Woman King chooses a side, but it’s incredibly thoughtful in arriving at the destination.
The film balances the slave trade’s ugliness with the Dahomey kingdom’s transcendent beauty. Prince-Bythewood is meticulous in presenting as many cultural facets of the Dahomey people as possible, seamlessly folding them into the narrative. Every single moment – a ceremonial dance, a shared bath, the removal of splinters – rings with significance and envelops you in this magnificent world. The craftsmanship of these moments, from the intricate production design to the lush costuming, makeup, and hairstyling, is equally astounding. Not a single stone, leaf, or blade is left unturned in bringing the Dahomey kingdom to life.
For all of its thematic and cultural richness, The Woman King is an action-packed historical epic, and Prince-Bythewood further extends her brilliance into that arena. The film’s combat scenes pulsate with power, each attack landing with a resounding, even shocking impact. The first sequence – where the Agojie attack an Ayo outpost that housed kidnapped citizens – is a relentless rush that bears shades of Saving Private Ryan’s legendary opening. Even at its most brutal, the stunt choreography is agile and graceful, almost spellbinding. When the Agojie are in the throes of battle, there’s little room for anything else.
Except, of course, the exemplary character work that is Prince-Bythewood’s trademark. First and foremost, The Woman King is about a community of Black women who strive for excellence in everything they do. For them, excellence is the floor, the bare minimum. Excellence is survival and autonomy and joy, and even heartache. The Agojie achieve that excellence through discipline and hard work, but also through nurture and love.
Those threads sometimes get crossed, which forms much of Nanisca and Nawi’s equally powerful character arcs. Prince-Bythewood lovingly expresses the innate power that comes from untangling them, not only for the betterment of oneself but for the community. When that kind of love is in reach, nothing can supersede it. (Not even a quietly sweet and complicated budding romance between Nawi and Jordan Bolger’s Malik, a Portuguese colonizer whose mother once belonged to the Dahomey tribe.)
Such an extraordinary collective deserves an extraordinary cast, and like everything else, The Woman King delivers, with the indomitable Viola Davis leading the way. Nanisca is an unshakable, outwardly stoic force who exudes command. Davis, as is her specialty, finds pockets – in her movements, through her eyes, in smiles and frowns – to communicate how that presence was forged. Even before we know the depths of Nansica’s pain, Davis makes us feel it. Frankly, you could spend hours unpacking the brilliance of every single acting choice she makes in this film. Instead, I’ll say what is undeniable: Viola Davis is one of the greatest actors of our time.
Davis is not alone. The Woman King is a wildly successful ensemble piece. Thuso Mbedu is a revelation as the ambitious and spirited Nawi. Mbedu is a tenacious actor so profoundly connected to Nawi that she can switch from ferocity to vulnerability and back with startling ease. She is a sight to behold, and her scenes with Davis are an acting masterclass. Lashana Lynch, famous for her role as Maria Rambeau in the MCU, becomes the film’s beating heart, stealing scenes as the quick-witted and powerful Izogie. Every cast member is magnificent, from Sheila Atim’s gentle Amenza to John Boyega’s regal Ghezo.
The Woman King is a staggering triumph in every conceivable way. It is a towering monument of a film, masterfully granting space to a long-ignored story that, even after generations, shimmers with relevance. Expertly crafted and thematically resonant, The Woman King is more than just one of the best films of 2022, if not the best. It is a film that we have always deserved.