Sacred nuts. In this visceral and rousing action epic set in 1823, grizzled West African warrior General Namisca (Viola Davis) realises a prophesy has come to pass, and growls, in the direction of her spiritually-inclined wing-woman Amenza (Sheila Atim), “Your nuts were finally right!”
The Woman King has many serious things to say about colonialism, misogyny and greed, but could never be accused of taking itself too seriously. Like Black Panther, a film to which it’s bound to be compared, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s offering is both groundbreaking and happy to play by old-school rules (as in: make ‘em laugh).
Davis is stonking and subtle as the leader of the Agojie, an all-female battalion aka “the bloodiest bitches in Africa” (who actually existed). These women protect their homeland, Dahomey, from General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), the rapacious leader of a neighbouring kingdom. But they must also deal with more insidious foes, like a pretty Brazilian slave trader, Santo (Hero Fiennes Tiffin).
Namisca wants her king (John Boyega; solid) to take the moral high ground. She’s facing an uphill battle until attention-seeking, baby-faced teen recruit Nawi (31 year-old Thuso Mbedu; wondrously mercurial) changes everything.
You couldn’t ask for a stronger ensemble, with Atim and Lashana Lynch (as Namisca’s other wing-woman, pragmatic charmer Izogie) consistently adding depth to the story. The Agojie are not a one-woman army and The Woman King is not a one-woman show. The Screen Actors Guild always give an award for the “outstanding performance by a cast”. Davis, Mbedu, Atim and Lynch have got this.
The soundtrack, which includes a burst of song from Benin superstar, Angelique Kidjo, induces tingles. The same goes for Polly Morgan’s cinematography, but none of the visual/audio richness feels laboured. As if by magic, we simply get a ton of bangs for our bucks.
Does anyone still believe women directors can’t shoot fight scenes? The battles are shockingly brutal and, because we’re so bonded to Namisca and her squad, insanely cathartic.
Much has been made of the fact that the film’s ending whitewashes Dahomey’s leaders. Yes, the Woman King could be filed under wish-fulfilment, but that’s true of so many action classics. The last act has the same giddy atmosphere as Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood.
We’re encouraged to believe that once upon a time, in West Africa, the good gals won. If you want something closer to the truth, watch the 2019 documentary Warrior Women, featuring Black Panther’s Lupita Nyong’o. First, though, see The Woman King. It’s not a powerful true story. It’s a powerful story and when it comes to fiction, Prince-Bythewood rules.
134mins, cert 15