One of the most goosebump-inducing scenes in any big release this fall is the moment in The Woman King when an army of women warriors led by the fierce and radiant Viola Davis rise up in unison from the tall grass and run into battle. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who proved she could tackle the action genre last year with Netflix’s The Old Guard, has crafted a crowd pleaser that blends the historical epics of David Lean; recent action adventures with relevant themes such as Black Panther and Wonder Woman; and intimate, visceral drama about sisterhood, trauma and empowerment.
But The Woman King is no Marvel universe super hero movie. Set in a very realistic and gritty 1823,The Woman King is about the real-life West African kingdom of Dahomey which today is Benin. Viola Davis commands the screen as Nanisca, the leader of an army of women warriors known as the Agojie who fight the armies of the richer Oyo Empire. But there’s blood across many hands: Dahomey’s King Ghezo (John Boyega ) profits from allowing his own people and those of weaker neighboring countries to be kidnapped and trafficked as slaves by Portuguese traders.
The Agojie need new recruits and Nanisca, who relies on her trusted lieutenant Izogie (Lashana Lynch) for advice, becomes mentor to an orphan named Mawi (Thuso Mbedu) who is a natural renegade warrior. Scenes of the Agojie training for battle with weapons are both revelatory and exhilarating. Prince-Bythewood had the leadership and creative instinct to know that a movie rooted in camaraderie and trust needed a team of predominantly women on both sides of the camera. Besides the powerhouse cast and writers Dana Stevens and Maria Bello, the creative team includes the meticulously detailed costumes by Gersha Phillips and editing by Prince-Blythewood’s frequent collaboration, editor Terilyn A. Shropshire.
Polly Morgan’s cinematography is rich and fluid enough to depict an alternately lush and unforgiving environment. The warrior women are rendered in all their regal, statuesque, supremely physical bearing and beauty. But there are equally breathtaking moments when they are cast against firelight, stripped of armor, and their rawness and pain exposed along with their resiliency and power.