“The Woman King”, although “inspired by true stories,” is clearly not tied to them. It uses the story of 19th-century African female warriors as the starting point for an action-packed vehicle that’s enriched with plenty of melodrama. This combination creates a powerful showcase for the stars with a cast that is modern and a backdrop that refreshes its old-school formula.
Viola Davis, as usual, is regal as ever. She plays General Nanisca of the Agojie (also known as the Dahomey Amazons), a unit made up of women who swear off motherhood and marriage to pursue martial arts and defend their kingdom. This egalitarian streak is evident in a society that still has a large harem.
Nawi (“The Underground Railroad”) Thuso Mbedu is the point of entry to this warrior culture. She is a young independent-minded and headstrong woman who refused to marry for money. Her father finally dropped her off at the palace.
She is then taken under the wing of Izogie (Lashana Lynn, an additional action resume that includes “Captain Marvel”, and “No Time to Die”) and trained to endure the brutal regimen that will ultimately admit her to this elite troop corps.
The boot camp that follows, which will be a source of inspiration for modern-day fitness programs, proceeds in conjunction with preparations for a possible war against an opposing kingdom, Oyo Empire. This rival kingdom has been extorting tribute from Dahomey over the years. Nanisca urges the King to stop participating in the slave trade. She argues that selling captured foes to the Europeans has created a “dark circle” and they are increasingly intruding upon their lands.
Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”) directs the story. The story’s broad contours are difficult to understand, particularly with all the subplots and Nanisca’s backstory that get thrown in. (Script by Dana Stevens. Maria Bello shares story credit.
The film was shot in South Africa. It helps to bridge some of the expository gaps by opening with a brutal sequence that shows how fierce Nanisca, and her loyal soldiers, can be. Although the scenes are well-shot to minimize gore, the violence and forms of warfare are so extreme that the PG-13 rating is questionable.
Nanisca is worried that her warriors don’t know what evil is coming, a hint at the Oyo’s upcoming battle. The most impressive portrayal of this subculture is by “The Woman King”, who plays a celebration of African traditions, while still catering to the escapist needs of Friday-night audiences.
Prince-Bythewood achieved this feat with fast pacing and sheer muscle. Terence Blanchard’s incredible score was a major help. The movie’s predominantly Black and female cast could be a welcome boost for other projects that have struggled to get studio support in the past.
The film feels like an old action movie, even though it features people who were rarely allowed to play prominent roles. The film’s final scene is not as exciting as it should be, but “The Woman King”, as the title suggests, has made the most out of its impressive arsenal.