The Woman King
The action epic relishes its rarely explored setting
Hollywood is always in need of stories, and what better pool to draw from than history itself. However, as happens with Hollywood only too often, when they find a particular formula that works, they become entrenched in it fervently. This is why we’ve gotten innumerable films set in WWII and few non-Western historical epics. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s newest seeks to break this convention with The Woman King (2022).
The Woman King takes place in the Kingdom of Dahomey (present day Benin) in the 1820s. We follow Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) a girl who, when failing to find a marriage, is forced into training in the unique and elite fighting squad of the Agojie, which was entirely made-up of women (they were known in Western circles as “The Dahomey Amazons”). Here Nawi meets her trainer, the humorous, but fierce Izogie (Natasha Lynch) as well as the General of the Agojie, Nanisca (Viola Davis) who serves the indulgent king of the Dahomey, King Ghezo (John Boyega). The Dahomey are forced to fight for their survival, against rival tribes and leering Portuguese slave traders.
The Woman King is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, and it marks her follow-up to her Netflix actioner The Old Guard (2020). The Woman King does play against a rare Hollywood setting, but Prince-Bythewood’s directorial approach and the script by Dana Stevens play along the safe structures of a Hollywood blockbuster. The Woman King thus derives its value more from its setting and casting than its plot and narrative. Prince-Bythewood, is more than happy to comply with a by-the-numbers story, taking much more interest in enlivening and exploring the rich and vibrant world of the Dahomey instead. It is in the appreciation and homage to Dahomey culture and a pride in women power that American director focuses in most, and it is frankly in these aspects that viewers are most enraptured by. The script and story feature distinct and intriguing characters, but a sometimes unnecessary entangling of fates makes The Woman king feel like it’s melodrama instead of an action epic. This bogs down the subtle aspects of The Woman King and makes the emotional beats feel blunt and overexplained.
Viewers who come to The Woman King expecting an action-packed adventure might be disappointed with the slower and more meditative portions of the second act. When the action does go down (and the finale is ripe with it), I was rather surprised by the regressive framing that Prince-Bythewood took, especially given her previous work in The Old Guard. Shaky-cam and a dizzying array of cuts is introduced so that fights are disorienting and nauseating to look at, decentering viewers as to the actual action and sequence of events occurring. For a film centered around warriors, and with a director proven to have choreographed better action before, this is a significant let down.
Prince-Bythewood is gifted with the immeasurable talents of Viola Davis, who also produced the film. Davis, one of the greatest performers working today, bulks up for The Woman King and delivers an imposing performance as General Nanisca. For fans of Davis, her take on the General might remind them of her stoic and one-note Amanda Waller from DC Universe, only Nanisca is given a couple of scenes to show vulnerability and emotion, given a late, but needed depth to her character. Mbedu is strong in a largely bland and thankless lead role, and after her great work in Barry Jenkins’ The Undergound Railroad (2021) demonstrates once again that she’s a young actress to look out for. The standout of The Woman King, however, is Natasha Lynch, who brings humor, grit, and an irresistible charisma to Izogie, making viewers attach to her from the first frame she appears. With a simple glance or smirk, she takes control of an entire scene. Despite having been in multiple big blockbusters (Captain Marvel (2019), No Time to Die (2021)), Lynch still feels underutilized. Someone please give this woman a juice lead role!
The Woman King is an enjoyable and accessible action epic that brings a little explored setting and time-period to the fore. The film looks beautiful under the direction of Prince-Bythewood, who sees the importance of her film lies in the depiction of culture and setting rather than the story. The melodramatic moments and shoddy action work bog down The Woman King at certain points, but a talented cast and enthusiastic director do enough to rise above it.