Watching The Woman King, the phrase ‘it’s about time’ springs to mind. It’s about time there was a big-budget dramatic epic about Black female warriors, inspired by true events. It’s about time that a film set in the 1800s had a predominantly Black cast, and that slavery was only part of the story. It’s about time this film was directed by a woman. It’s also about time that Viola Davis was given a leading action role. Your only hope is that a film this overdue is actually good, too
Phew. It is. Gina Prince-Bythewood (2012’s Love & Basketball) directs a gripping, accessible epic, while Davis is meaty and magnificent as General Nanisca, leader of the legendary Agojie. This all-female unit of warriors fight to protect the African kingdom of Dahomey from slave traders and violent invaders. They train up the next generation, including 19-year-old Nawi, beautifully played by The Underground Railroad’s Thuso Mbedu. After stubbornly resisting her father’s attempts to marry her off to abusive men, Nawi is dumped at the gates of the Agojie, and leaps at the chance to learn how to behead a man in one clean swipe of a sword.
The Woman King’s script isn’t perfect, with a few sudden jumps and one contrivance too many, but it’s easy to forgive that in the sheer thrill of it all. The training scenes recall classic sports movies, and the ensuing action scenes really deliver, while the narrative hits emotional beats that recall everything from Braveheart to Gladiator.
It’s a story of sisterhood and racial identity that deserves to pack in the crowds
Like many of her warriors, Nanisca is a victim of multiple rapes, and while this adds to her motivation to kick abusive male ass, it doesn’t define her: she is many things including a political strategist, a fighter, a friend. An excellent John Boyega plays King Ghezo, who has the ear of Nanisca, but is also prone to the odd eye-rolling moment of casual sexism. His pampered favourite wife Shante (Jayme Lawson) provides easy laughs, while not benefitting from many layers.
These are reserved for the warrior women, not least Izogie, an expert trainer played by an awards-worthy Lashana Lynch. The Londoner is given more action and arc than she had as 007.
Other strong supporting performances include Jordan Bolger as the biracial Malik, who’s conflicted by his friendship with Brazilian enslaver Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin). That Malik provides the only topless scene is surely no coincidence; and it’s also no accident, either, that his flirtation with Nawi is not the film’s most compelling relationship. The Woman King is a story of sisterhood and racial identity that deserves to pack in the crowds. About time, indeed.
In US theaters now. Out in UK cinemas Oct 7.