Oscar-winner Viola Davis has shown her range before in her roles in both television and film, playing a lawyer, a maid, a housewife, a singer… the list goes on. In Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King, the actor takes on her most physical role yet as the general Nanisca, who leads the elite female warrior squad, the Agojie, to protect the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Under threat from their neighbours, the Oyo, and the slave trade fuelled by the Europeans, Naniisca and her soldier are always on hand to protect the defenceless. (Also read: Exclusive || Viola Davis: Growing up, I saw black woman were seen as a blip; I felt like, that’s not all)
But as the battles with the Oyo and the slave traders deepens, the Agojie must recruit some fresh blood and train them well. Among them is the defiant Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) who is given up by her family because of her disobedience. Nanisca’s longtime and trusted warriors Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim) oversee the training of the new young women. The general also has to convince Dahomey’s King Ghezo (John Boyega) to be on the right side of history and condemn the slave trade which is destroying their people in exchange for weapons and commodities.
The historical saga, along the lines of an all-female Gladiator, is impressive as it builds towards an emotional crescendo of general Nanisca finally getting the recognition she worked so hard for her whole life. Based on real events, screenwriter Dana Stevens keeps the story between the strong female bonds established amongst the Agojie, old and new. As the older generation passes down their wisdom, the youngsters in turn also have something to teach them.
Mbedu is electrifying as the impulsive but well-meaning Nawi. She and Nanisca discover a connection between them that neither one expected as well. The South African actor has a star-making turn in The Woman King. Lynch’s focused Izogie and the no-nonsense Amenza by Atim are also standouts from the cast. But ultimately, this is Davis’s film as the 57-year-old absolutely nails with her usual intensity. The role is physical and emotional and Davis does not disappoint as she keeps pace with her much younger co-stars.
A few sub-plots regarding the European slave traders, especially a man with Dahomean roots, digress from the main action and it becomes a bit chaotic at times in following the main thread of the story by Stevens and Maria Bello. However, when Prince-Bythewood sticks to the action, the film soars as the Agojie give it an attempt as good as any male warrior. The fight sequences are gritty and gruesome and show the ruthlessness of both sides as they fight for what they believe in. The energetic score by Terence Blanchard and Lebo M also adds to the tenacious experience of the battlefield.
While set in 1823, the saga hits upon issues that still prevail, from sexism to racism, against the backdrop of history. The characters, especially Nanisca, have a conscience that they can’t turn off. The Agojie have a battle cry, ‘fight or die’ and it is this fearlessness that carries the film even as the storytelling wobbles during its 135 minutes running time. With a mostly female crew and cast, The Woman King is an impressive and empowering tale of Black excellence and power.