The Woman King: Viola Davis leads the line as a fierce warrior in period action adventure set in western Africa
More than a period action adventure, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King actively engages in making new myths through a storyline that puts women at the heart of the action.
Set in 1823, the movie focuses on the west African kingdom of Dahomey and its Agojie — an all-woman fighting unit that is tougher and more feared than any band of male soldiers. Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis delivers a knock-out performance as the commander of this elite group of female warriors and is also the soul of this film that celebrates Black pride.
As the kingdom of Dahomey faces the prospect of war with the neighbouring Oyo empire, the Agojie, headed by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), swear to protect their land. Nanisca begins training a new batch of warriors to face the enemy. But this battle to save their motherland turns personal for Nanisca when she discovers that she has a deeper connection with one of the trainees, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu). How the Agojie use their fierce battle skills to safeguard their freedom forms the crux of the film.
The screenplay also tenderly touches upon the bond shared by these African female warriors. The chemistry between Nanisca and her trusted lieutenants — Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim) — crackles through the duration of the movie.
The Woman King also deals with generational change — Nanisca comes with an abundance of experience and wisdom, while Nawi is bubbling with enthusiasm and new ideas. The older woman’s connection with her protege forms the emotional arc of the story.
Although set in a distant past, the issues showcased by Prince-Bythewood through this film, based on Maria Bello and Dana Stevens’s story, are relevant in this day and age too. The Dahomey empire usually sells prisoners of wars as slaves to Europeans in exchange for weapons and money. But Nanisca urges King Ghezo (John Boyega) to do away with the slave trade as it ultimately hurts the African identity. Also the Agojie fight shoulder to shoulder with the male army and would rather die on the battlefield than concede ground to the enemy.
But at the heart of The Woman King is the tale of Nanisca’s transformation from the commander of a group of warriors to a monarch who commands the love and respect of her people. Davis has an enigmatic screen presence and steals the thunder even in the action scenes with a much younger cast. Mbedu is an equal match for her as the impulsive and outspoken Nawi.
Although the pace of the story wobbles at places because of a few digressions in the plot, it is the high-octane action sequences that keep you committed to the story. Every actor, who is part of the Agojie, slays it in the battle sequences that are well choreographed, innovative and menacing. One cannot help but root for the Dahomean warriors in this fight for glory. Terence Blanchard and Lebo M’s score adds energy to the grand spectacle of battle scenes.