In the African kingdom of Dahomey, now a part of Benin, an elite all-female military regiment of warriors called the Agojie guarded the king and his subjects from the 1600s through the 1800s. By the mid-19th century, they accounted for a third of the entire Dahomey army. That’s history, and the inspiration for director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historical epic The Woman King, starring Viola Davis, one of the few studio films releasing in 2022 directed by a female filmmaker.
The Woman King is already garnering awards buzz for Davis, who has called it her Magnum Opus. It centers on General Nanisca (Davis), as she trains a new generation of recruits who aspire to be counted among the fierce warriors under her command. One young woman challenged with what feels like an impossible level of training is headstrong Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who has been rejected as an unmarriageable by her family. She and her fellow recruits are put through their paces by training lieutenant and fierce fighter Izogie (Lashana Lynch), and Amenza (Sheila Atim), a spiritual leader and Nanisca’s second in command.
The actors trained many hours a day for months so they could perform nearly all their own stunts, as well as several highly choreographed dances, including one battle dance that is one of the most intense and magnetic scenes in the film. Each performer expresses her strength and energy as unique to her character, and their fighting styles are anchored in their individual story arcs. No choice in battle or ritual is random, and every act of violence furthers the storytelling. That’s par for the course for Prince-Bythewood, who recently showed her facility with combining story and action in 2020’s The Old Guard. Though Viola does some of her best work in this film, it is also a truly ensemble endeavor, with memorable performances turned in by Mbedu, Lynch and Atim, as well as John Boyega as the regal and commanding King Ghezo.
The first thing Prince-Bythewood asked of cinematographer Polly Morgan was to make the cast look better than they’ve ever looked onscreen. The many shades of Blackness represented are lit perfectly, which is not a given even in films today.
The Woman King is a film unlike any before it. In it, Viola Davis, a renowned Black actor over 50, has an opportunity to portray someone she never thought she could. A number of Black female actors have an opportunity to play complex, 3-dimensional characters in a story that celebrates them, and brings narrative attention to powerful Black women. All this is presented within a story inspired by history. As such it should be celebrated and amplified. — Leslie Combemale
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Sherin Nicole It’s been a long time coming but The Woman King has arrived and, damn, it’s amazing. The story focuses on Nanisca (Viola Davis), the general of The Agojie under the reign of King Ghezo (John Boyega). Of course, something or someone has to shake things up. Say hello to Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), our POV character who is as young, brash, rash, and reckless as you want her to be. But she isn’t Nanisca’s only problem. How can a girlie win? Gina Prince-Bythewood’s epic is about to let us know if she can. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin The Woman King, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s history-based action drama is about 1820s Africa, where a legion of female warriors fought for and freed the West African Kingdom of Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin) from invading African tribal rulers and European slave traders who were eager to purchase captured prisoners and transport them to Europe or America for sale in slave auctions. Maria Bello and Dana Steven’s script centers on the challenging relationship between undefeated General Nanisca (Viola Davis) and talented newbe warrior Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), set within the context of the growing threat to the independence of Dahomey as the country’s economy transitions from the sale of slaves to the less heartbreaking and more sustainable sale of palm oil. There are plenty of heart gripping plot twists to garner audience support, sympathy and love for the impressive women warriors who fight (and fight a lot) with sufficient skill to satisfy any martial arts movie maven. Action-packed, the beautifully crafted film is thoroughly entertaining while delivering truly inspirational messages about the strengths of sisterhood and the positive value of taking risks to stand for what is morally right. It’s impossible to remain unmoved by The Woman King.
Pam Grady: In inhabiting the role of an action hero, Viola Davis makes her case for GOAT, or at least the greatest actor of her generation in this stirring saga that blends big battles with even larger emotional resonance. She is Nanisca, the leader and role model of a band of fierce women warriors in 1823 Dahomey. A passionate objector to the slave trade in which Dahomey takes part, Nanisca uses what influence she has with King Ghezo (John Boyega) to steer him away from the morally repugnant trade. At the same time, she must prepare her troops for battle against an enemy bent on Dahomey’s annihilation and contend with the roiling emotions engendered by her connection to Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a new recruit. The story by Dana Stevens and actor Maria Bello is stirring and involving in its depiction of this ferocious sisterhood and their dedication to protecting their homeland—and one another. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood directs the rare action epic as invested in storytelling and feeling as it is in its thrilling fighting scenes. Oscar winner Davis may want to make room on her mantle for more glittery hardware as she delivers yet another superlative performance and one so different than anything she’s done in the past.
Loren King 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. Read full review.
Marilyn Ferdinand With the critical and financial success of Black Panther, movies that tell the stories of Africa and the African diaspora are multiplying and screening widely. Talented Black director Gina Prince-Bythewood was tapped to tell the story of the Agojie women warriors of the African Kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) during the slave trade years. A passion project for Viola Davis, who co-produced the film and stars as Nanisca, the general in charge of the Agojie, The Woman King is an old-fashioned action-adventure that barely strays from the template laid down for such films as far back as the early days of Hollywood. While you’ll be able to anticipate every beat of this film, the actors and Prince-Bythewood’s direction of them provide some real meat to chew on. In a star-making turn, South African actor Thuso Mbedu plays upstart Agojie trainee Nawi with intensity and nuance. Also superb are Lashana Lynch as Nawi’s trainer and Sheila Atim as Amenza, confidante of Nanisca. The few action sequences in the film could have used better choreography and lensing, but sensitive viewers will be happy to know that little blood is shown, and one sex scene isn’t shown at all. Better are the dance sequences and solidarity the Agojie share in their female-only domain. Terence Blanchard’s score is also a real standout.
Sandie Angulo Chen: The Woman King is a remarkable film directed and co-written by the fabulous Gina Prince-Bythewood, who has dedicated her entire career to elevating the voices of Black women and characters. The Woman King feels like her proverbial magnum opus, the culmination of her two decades since her auspicious debut feature Love & Basketball. Viola Davis gives a remarkable, memorable performance as General Nanisca, with Olivier Award-winning British actor Sheila Atim and Marvel Cinematic Universe veteran Lashana Lynch equally extraordinary as Nanisca’s right-hand woman and protégé. The film explores the twin traumas of sexual violence and transatlantic slavery while never taking away from the spirit, the power of sisterhood.
Liz Whittemore In the new action-drama inspired by true events, writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood tells the story of the Agojie warriors. Comprised solely of virgin female fighters that defended the West African kingdom of Dahomey from the 17th to the 19th century, The Woman King is a fiercely epic tale of friendship and honor. Viola Davis plays Nanisca, a strong-willed, ferocious fighter and respected advisor to the new king, portrayed by John Boyega. As Nanisca trains the new generation of warriors, old wounds and enemies threaten the traditions of the Agojie, putting safety and politics at risk. The cast includes outstanding performances from Lashana Lynch, Thuso Mbedu, Shiela Atim, and Jayme Lawson. The men in the film are genuinely secondary characters. Viola Davis leaves everything on the screen once again. Her raw vulnerability and relentless strength give a depth to Nanisca that catches you off guard as the screenplay progresses. She walks a fine line with Boyega, giving him a chance to shine in yet another role proving his chameleon abilities. The Woman King, while action-packed, is also surprisingly funny. The acerbic wit flows free, and it’s a striking contrast to the elaborately choreographed fight scenes. I saw the film on opening night in a sold-out screening at 8 pm. The audience cheered with wild abandon throughout the film, filling the theatre with electric energy. Do not be surprised when The Woman King receives a nomination in the best picture category.
Cate Marquis Gina Prince-Blythewood, whose previous films include Love and Basketball and The Old Guard, gives audiences a thrilling, kick-ass epic with all the trimmings. The Woman King excels on all levels. It’s entertaining and inspiring. It brilliantly mixes action, drama, history and pageantry in this engrossing, exciting story built around tough women warriors. Read full review.
Title: The Woman King
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Release Date: September 15, 2022
Running Time: 135 minutes
Screenwriters: Maria Bello and Dana Stevens
Distribution Company: SONY
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin