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The Woman King: Viola Davis and John Boyega play a fierce general and a young king in this 19th century West African epic

"There will be no prisoners," snarls Viola Davis's imposing West African general Nanisca, staring down a settlement of 19th-century slave traders in the rousing new historical epic, The Woman King. "Burn their whole trade to the ground."

The Oscar-winning star – wrapped in a cowry shell sash, hair sculpted high over a battle scar and thousand-yard stare – is the formidable, fearsome centre of American filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood's action-packed Afrocentric affair, a big, mean, pulpy movie that drags the old Hollywood historical epic out of the shadows and into the cultural moment.

In its scope, sensation and soul, it puts the current crop of superhero movies – and their feeble political gestures – to shame.

Leaning hard into a dark and complex period of history, The Woman King unfolds in the former West African kingdom of Dahomey (now modern-day Benin) in 1823, with the European slave trade in full swing and all-out battle looming between the state and the bullying forces of the ruling Oyo Empire.

That the film's basis in real-world events has attracted debate over its historical accuracy seems beside the point.

Hollywood has long trafficked in historical fiction to serve the dominant white narrative; if The Woman King smudges a few facts in the pursuit of a new kind of cinematic myth-making, well, so be it.

Davis's fictitious Nanisca is the leader of an all-female – and historically very real – cohort of warriors known as the Agojie, a ferocious band of fighters sworn to protect Dahomey and its King.

The film opens as the Agojie are liberating a bunch of Dahomey captives from Oyo raiders, and – just to ensure you known what you've signed on for – gives us the grisly, no-nonsense image of Nanisca taking her machete to an enemy soldier's throat like she's taking out the trash.

Nanisca's distaff warriors are in the employ of Dahomey's young King Ghezo – played by an impossibly hot John Boyega, wielding his real-life dad's Nigerian accent – a conflicted monarch whose kingdom has been enriched by its own participation in the slave trade.

"The Europeans and the Americans have seen that if you want to hold a people in chains, one must first convince them that they are meant to be bound," Ghezo declares in a moment of remorse.

"We joined them in becoming our own oppressor."

Though the movie (and Boyega's charm) softens him, Ghezo was a complicated figure who colluded with slave traders before liberating his kingdom. Nanisca advocates for an end to the slave trade in favour of agricultural production, but she and her army are duty-bound to their king – there's war to be waged; politics will have to wait.

Into the fray comes Nawi (South African actor Thuso Mbedu, star of The Underground Railroad), a rebellious teenager who refuses her father's plans for an arranged marriage and is duly bundled off and discarded at the king's palace gates.

Fortunately she's taken under the wing of Dahomey warrior Izogie (No Time To Die's Lashana Lynch) – whose nails are sharper than any sword in the kingdom – and brought into the Agojie training program.

"Your tears mean nothing," Izogie chides her young charge, like some sapphic drill sergeant. "To be a warrior, you must kill your tears."

For reasons that will become apparent as the story unravels, Nawi proves to be a quick study in the ways of the warrior, but first, there's old-fashioned training montages to indulge, and sequences that revel in Ghezo's inner sanctum – a world reserved strictly for women and eunuchs, including a deliciously sashaying royal confidante (Riaan Visman) giving full Drag Race.

It's here that the film digs deep into the bonds between women, in that secret sisterhood that takes place far from the male gaze, and – like any good Hollywood epic – some vaguely homoerotic bathhouse scenes that serve as steamy arenas for backstage power play.

Meanwhile, a swarthy party of Brazilian slavers in league with the Oyo alight in search of new captives, with the young, mixed race Malik (Jordan Bolger) – whose mother was a Dahomey slave – in tow and searching for his past.

The hunky Malik catches Nawi's eye as he emerges from a dip in the jungle lagoon, and the camera sizes him up like a romance novel cover – just one of the film's many peripheral treats for its audience. (Another: Malik goes in for a kiss, and Nawi responds by swiping his sword right out of his scabbard.)

In the hands of Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball; The Secret Life of Bees), who showed that she knew her way around action in the 2020 Netflix thriller The Old Guard, The Woman King is a shot of life in a listless multiplex drowning in interchangeable franchise product – the kind of movie that once roused an audience, minted a star, or brazenly met the cultural tide head on.

It's big and bruising and action-packed – the sort of movie where Viola Davis isn't afraid to cut down a horse in order to fell an enemy – and doesn't shy away from sizing up the grim heart of its subject; one in which African kingdoms were historically complicit in the slave trade of their own people.

If the film takes a necessarily streamlined view of history, then it's all in the service of reclaiming a fraught narrative, in reshaping it for a modern era that demands a reckoning with the past.

New generations need new heroines. The Woman King delivers one for the ages.

The Woman King is in cinemas now.

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