The Woman King review

The Woman King is a roaring epic

3.5 out of 5 stars

In the African Kingdom of Dahomey, an all-woman fighting unit, the Agojie, recruits a new generation of warriors. Led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), these young women will be pushed to their limits in a rapidly changing world. Set in the early 1800s, as the slave trade wanes, the people of Dahomey are torn. They’ve gained enormous wealth by selling prisoners of war to the Europeans (mainly the Portuguese), but the spiritual weight of trading human flesh to the white man begins to weigh heavily. 

The Woman King is both an incredible action film and a geopolitical thriller. While the film centres on this warrior group’s astonishing sacrifice and skills, they’re torn by their role in the slave trade. While the King (John Boyega) believes there is no harm selling off their enemies, those whispering in his ear suggest that the European and American buyers see no difference between one tribe and another. To continue to sell slaves means to sell off their futures.

Subverting the Strong Female Character trope, the film examines the physical and feminine sacrifices required to be a spiritual class. The women of the Agojie are virgins and are mostly sequestered from the rest of the tribe. The necessity of virginity speaks to the conditional power of these women; they must cut themselves off from the pleasures of flesh and marriage only because if they were to give themselves over to those institutions, in exchange, they would lose their standing in society. 

Through the character of Nawi (an incredible Thuso Mbedu), we learn the ins and outs of their world. As a stubborn outsider who wants to regain her power, she lives in tension with the world as she tries to forge her own path. She butts heads with General Nanisca and other higher-ranking women in the tribe, as she often puts herself above others. They criticize her obstinance, though they will eventually learn to respect her willingness to sacrifice the individual in favour of society.

the woman king

The same kind of conditional power of the Agojie also applies to the secondary character and romantic interest, Malik (Jordan Bolger). He is half-Portuguese and half-African and is permitted to navigate white society. With limited life experience, he believes his class status will protect him from slavery and racism. He will be met with a harsh lesson. While overall, his relationship with Nawi feels somewhat shoe-horned in, thematically, he serves an essential thematic role within the text. 

The film’s heart, though, lies in the performances and the complex intergenerational relationships built between characters. Thuso Mbedu and Viola Davis, in particular, face each other in an increasingly tense set of narrative conditions that strain expectations and enrich (though challenge) their relationship. The deep sense of community and sacrifice for the collective makes the film feel borderline radical, even though it ends up upholding some understanding of the status quo. The tireless fighting in favour of the greater good might feel cute if it were not so embroiled with political and social realities that complicate even the best intentions. 

As a pure action film, The Woman King works equally well. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood captures what makes an action sequence great, integrating character and interpersonal relationships through every fight scene. The fights are well-shot and choreographed, and there is a strong sense of atmosphere and danger. From early montage training sequences to epic battles, the film stands against any modern epic.

The Woman King may run over two hours, but it’s consistently rich and entertaining. In a landscape of blockbusters that aim to appeal to the lowest common denominator, this one has a thrust of passion and intelligence rarely seen anymore. ■

The Woman King, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

The Woman King opened in Montreal theatres on Sept. 16, and is now streaming on Crave.

For the latest in film and TV, please visit our Film & TV section.