Traditional Hollywood trappings collide with a novel cultural focus in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King. Set in the early 1820s, it follows an all-female regiment of African soldiers, the fearsome Agojie—dubbed “Amazons” by European colonizers—who, along with their male counterparts, protect their kingdom of Dahomey (in present-day Benin) at a time of fraught treaties and changes in local slave trade. While it starts out on uneasy footing, the film blooms midway through, into an enrapturing crowd-pleaser with tremendous performances. It loses some of this steam by the time the credits roll, but its lengthy middle section proves to be a brand-new (and long overdue) avenue for the North American film industry, whose water-well for costume period dramas has been crushingly limited for the past century.
Is it a game-changer? It’s hard to say, but to view it solely in these broad industry terms is a disservice to its performers—primarily, American actress Viola Davis (Doubt), Briton Lashana Lynch (Captain Marvel, No Time to Die), and South Africa’s Thuso Mbedu (The Underground Railroad)—who not only embody broad Hollywood “types” with dazzling finesse, but also approach their roles with incredible nuance. Davis plays General Nanisca, the world-weary Agojie leader who bottles up her emotions as she stoically ravages rival tribes seeking to conquer Dahomey’s throne. Upon that throne sits King Ghezo (John Boyega), with whom she butts heads over their port kingdom’s involvement in European slave trade—an internal conflict that causes external tensions over how Dahomey ought to proceed, as African and European alliances are forged, and the local chessboard quickly morphs.
Nanisca’s right-hand-woman is Izogie, a role that finally affords Lynch the kind of presence and star-power the Marvel and Bond films took for granted. The African characters all speak English with a mix of various West African accents (Lynch’s is the most unstable, frequently slipping into her mother’s Jamaican), but the film’s conceit is that they’re actually speaking Fon, a dialect still spoken in Benin. No matter the spoken tongue, Lynch’s body-language elevates her from a mere supporting warrior into a statured mix of comic relief sidekick and instantly captivating badass, who also harbors a reflective thoughtfulness in her silent moments, when her existing notions of heroism are challenged by her younger counterparts. She vacillates between imposing and hilarious, with a tongue-in-cheek approach to training Agojie hopefuls, a talent pool comprising both liberated slave women from neighboring tribes, as well as local Dahomey girls whose families’ efforts to turn them into wives and mothers have proven unfruitful.
Wide-eyed newcomer Nawi, played by Mbedu, is one such young girl. She’s a character who both reveres the Agojie but is dead-set on bucking tradition, which at first means defying her adoptive father when he tries to marry her off, and then means brushing up against the boundaries of the Agojie rulebook as she trains. The Agojie are prohibited from marriage, sex, and having children, but Nawi is a mischievous and flirtatious sort. This complicates things for her place in the tribe (just as it does for the larger dynamic between Dahomey and Portuguese colonists) when an attractive, mixed Brazilian sailor arrives at their gates. Malik (Jordan Bolger), the son of a white European father and an enslaved Dahomey woman, wishes to visit his mother’s homeland, and though he’s afforded little interiority or perspective, sparks between him and Nawi fly, albeit in secret, lest the Agojie elders find out.
As the film unfolds, the plot’s dual focus remains on both growing geographical tensions, and on Nawi’s training among several other new recruits, who undergo obstacle courses and various painful, bloody exercises (like escaping a maze of sharp thorns), en route to the film’s slowly brewing climax between Dahomey and an alliance of colonists and other tribes. It’s peppered with several action set-pieces along the way, each of which allows the cast an unapologetic physicality. Izogie claws at her enemies’ eyes with her long fingernails, which are sharpened into talons. Nanisca slices her way through leagues of adversaries with a blade she otherwise rests over her shoulders, like an anime sword. Generally speaking, the visual conception of the Agojie women—whether at war, in training, or while practicing traditional dances behind the palace walls—runs marvelously counter to the mainstream Hollywood grain, which so rarely features this many Black women in close proximity who are, at once, graceful, muscular, radiant, and multifaceted in their movements. Nanisca is a brawler; Izogie is more feline; Nawi eventually develops her own more tactical and intellectual style. The Agojie are a family, whose training kicks up dust like old grudges, but who spend their downtime lovingly and playfully until the next inter-personal conflict arises. (One of these conflicts happens to be the growing mother-daughter dynamic between Nanisca and Nawi, the last thing either of these tough-as-nails individualists ever expected).
However, the film’s individual flourishes rarely add up whenever the action reaches a crescendo. The violence, while framed as righteous and built on a strong character foundation, lacks the necessary weight—the visceral “oomph”—to feel truly thrilling.
Runs marvelously counter to the mainstream Hollywood grain, which so rarely features this many Black women in close proximity who are, at once, graceful, muscular, radiant, and multifaceted in their movements.
Gina Prince-Bythewood, who proved her dramatic chops beyond a doubt with the complicated romantic drama Beyond the Lights, allows similar complications to fester here, as characters’ beliefs and personal philosophies are tested by sudden, melodramatic turns that rarely feel unjustified. However, the Prince-Bythewood of the abysmal Netflix superhero IP-launcher The Old Guard is present too, creating action tableaus that lack gravitas or aesthetic allure. For every bit of amusing banter, and every rousing scene of characters overcoming minor obstacles as if the world were at stake—an underrated artform!—there’s an equivalent action beat that’s exceptionally plain, or that floats by without leaving an impression, even when it’s intended as the payoff to a character arc, or meant to release years of anguish and trauma.
The camera refuses to hold on even the most narratively justified violence before cutting away, whether the focus is the bloodshed itself, or on the gratifying expressions of release on the Agojie’s faces. In the few scenes that do hold long enough on these moments, the sound is dulled, and rarely complements each strike or kill with anything resembling real impact. Even the shots that are bloody feel squeamish, since bleeding victims drop quickly and listlessly out of frame without so much as a “thud,” as if they were mere pixels in a video game. There’s plenty of action, but something always feels missing.
Given the way The Woman King is constructed, this action is not some secondary concern or parallel story thread, but rather, it’s the movie’s centerpiece, and the payoff to practically every emotional setup, including a particularly unnerving one for Nanisca (a backstory which both explains her closed-off demeanor and, when a man from her past returns to haunt her, ignites a pain and fury that Davis taps into without hesitation). Scenes build, and build, but eventually, they peter out.
Part of the problem is also that the film’s emotional culminations depend solely on these failed moments of action, rather than the externalization of philosophy. The script, by Dana Stevens, is broad in a typically Hollywood sense: its machinations are simple and functional, but its edges are sanded down. It’s not nearly as complex as it ought to be. Poetic license is hardly a novel concept in Hollywood, especially when it comes to period dramas, but the film’s approach to real-world history is overly saccharine for a concept as horrid as human slavery. The Agojie were, in fact, a real-world regiment (believed to be the world’s only all-female army), but Dahomey and King Ghezo’s place in the Atlantic slave trade is rinsed through a rosy filter. There’s a neat and simple narrative symmetry to a kingdom that starts out already wanting to remove itself from this equation, since it has a ready financial alternative—the production of palm-oil—but the narrative result is a reduced philosophical tension between Nanisca and Ghezo. It doesn’t take much for them to get on the same page, and their disagreements are mostly for the sake of narrative convenience, rather than thematic tension.
In reality, Dahomey was far more actively involved in slave trading, and Ghezo long went back and forth on the idea. Of course, as a dramatic piece, The Woman King needn’t adhere closely to historical facts. Ghezo isn’t even its titular character—that would be Nanisca, whose potential ascendancy to this ceremonial title is its own little subplot—and presenting the kingdom as more of a walled-off village with an army of dozens, rather than a full-fledged monarchy with thousands of warriors, makes them more of an underdog. But the result of all this whitewashing is a far less ugly and challenging conception of ethos, culture and history, and a far more palatable portrait of heroes who, despite their actors’ best efforts, end up flattened with regards to their outlooks on violence and human trafficking (which feel as if they emanate from a distinctly modern perspective, rather than one that feels authentic to the characters and their era). Moral stances are taken, but rarely shaken, and the only lasting tension Nanisca has with royalty is a repetitive tiff with one of Ghezo’s many wives. It’s amusing, but little more.
Visually, the film is a conception of African-ness that flies in the face of what much of Hollywood has had to offer. The only example that feels remotely similar, in its little joys and vibrant details, is from four whole years ago, in the form of Black Panther’s fictional realm of Wakanda (whose own women warrior tribe, the Dora Milaje, would likely not exist without the Agojie). However, narratively, the film lacks the emotional rigor necessary to elevate it from a mere action-heavy recounting (whose actual action rarely lands), to the emotionally riveting historical drama its cast seems to believe they’re starring in. Even minor roles are populated by powerhouse performers, like the always-captivating British-Ugandan stage actress Sheila Atim (The Underground Railroad), who plays Nanisca’s stern but gentle confidante Amenza, or American singer Adrienne Warren (Broadway’s Tina), who plays Ode, a woman liberated from a rival tribe, who slowly finds purpose and belonging among the Agojie. Every actor involved delivers career-best work, which makes the film’s aesthetic failings all the more disappointing, since it doesn’t do them justice.
Still, The Woman King remains a rare feat in the realm of modern Hollywood filmmaking, not only for its specific historical focus, but its mere presence as a mid-budget studio drama not based on existing IP. It’s the kind of theatrical film that was once the industry’s bread and butter, but now rarely shows up outside of streaming. That it exists at all, and takes so unfamiliar a form in the context of mainstream Hollywood, feels nothing short of miraculous in 2022. The fact that it mostly works ought to make one all the more hopeful that it won’t be the last release of its kind.
Published on September 16, 2022