It’s important not to get carried away when discussing the progress towards gender and racial equity in the American movie business. Major inroads have been made towards proportional on-screen representation in the past decade, but projects by and about white men still get most of the studio funding. However, in the ongoing search for signs of evolution in Hollywood, look no further than The Woman King, a blockbuster historical war epic starring a muscle-bound Viola Davis. You have not seen a movie like The Woman King before, and that’s fucking cool.
THE WOMAN KING ★★★ (3/4 stars)
In the broad strokes, The Woman King isn’t so different from the boilerplate Hollywood war epic. We follow a brash young soldier from humble beginnings through the challenges of boot camp, rivalries between recruits grow into powerful friendships, a battle is joined that tests their mettle, and noble sacrifices are made for a greater cause. There’s even a romance subplot in the mix. But if the tropes are familiar, Hollywood has never applied them to African people or African stories, and rarely to women of color. For some, this may be fresh and exciting, something different from Hollywood for a change; for others, it’s a validation of history and the chance to see oneself on screen as a glorious action hero, one that comes from real life rather than a comic book.
General Nanisca (Davis) leads the Agojie, the elite female warriors of the Kingdom of Dahomey in 1823. The Agojie are a fearless, ruthless, and joyful band, living and training together in a partition of the royal palace where no man (save for eunichs or the king himself) may intrude. Though pledged to the service of King Ghezo (John Boyega), these women enjoy privilege and prestige that they would be afforded nowhere else. In the words of one recruit, here they are “predators, not prey.” For 19-year-old Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), joining the Agojie means escape from being sold to an abusive older husband, and the opportunity to put her boldness and hard-headedness to good use. She strives to be the greatest of her class of rookies, to impress her badass drill sergeant Izogie (Lashana Lynch), and to win the approval of the stoic General. By the time her initiation is complete, Nawi will be called to fight not only for her kingdom but for the future of the African continent.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood delivers a solid and entertaining action-infused drama, digestible, unpretentious, and totally comfortable with itself. That said, its adherence to the basic formula of the war epic means that it’s unlikely to challenge any genre expectations not already subverted by its poster. Which is not entirely a bad thing. For the most part, The Woman King does not sensationalize the fact that its protagonists are female soldiers, because in Dahomey, this is normal. The kingdom has male soldiers, too, and they play a part in the narrative, but this movie is not about them, and there’s no scene in the film in which a woman needs to prove to anyone (including the audience) that she’s a match for a man. It’s simply a given. This allows the film to be free of any ham-fisted, pandering “girl power” moments. The Woman King is a movie about being a soldier, not about being a “woman soldier.” Likewise, because nearly the entire cast is Black, race is a non-issue for long stretches. The setting is 19th century West Africa, and the viewer is immersed in the music, dance, and fashion of that world.
It should be noted, however, that like most war movies, The Woman King takes creative liberties in order to glorify its hero nation and demonize its villains. I’m not talking about the white slave traders whose economy of cruelty and despair fuels the film’s violent conflict; the evil of the slave trade needs no exaggeration, and recieves none. I mean that Dahomey is framed as a righteous and just state working for the freedom of all Africans, while their overlords from the Oyo Empire are absolute bastards eager to sell their own people to the Europeans in exchange for guns and horses. The Woman King is not without nuance on the topic, demonstrating that African states who wouldn’t do do business with human traffickers risked being annihilated by states who would, but it also frames the real-life Dahomey Revolt of 1823 as a battle for Black solidarity, an appealing rallying cry for a modern audience but a very generous interpretation of King Ghezo’s actual policies. Again, it’s entirely expected for a war movie to position its heroes as being on the right side of history (not very many Hollywood movies about World War II mention the internment of Japanese-Americans), and it would be surprising for The Woman King to try and deconstruct the anti-colonialist period action film before the genre has even been firmly established in the United States. (What a year, though, for the anti-colonialist period action film. Have you seen RRR?) I point this out only to say that it’s one of the ways in which The Woman King plays it reasonably safe, on the scale of “narrative risks taken in an unprecedented $50 million action movie starring mostly Black women.”
Which brings me back to the ways in which The Woman King is better judged as an action blockbuster than as prestige faire. Viola Davis is one of our greatest actors and it’s exciting to see her in such a physically demanding role, but her performance is inhibited by thin characterization on the page. In Dana Stevens’ unexceptional script no characters or conflicts are terribly complicated and the most expected thing nearly always happens. It’s the action that stands out most: sharp and kinetic, gritty but not gory, stylish but not stylized, and without any obvious hint of computer manipulation.
The Woman King seems like a shoe-in for major awards contention—the Academy loves period war movies (and the appearance of valuing diversity, whether or not it actually does)—but you don’t have to watch it through that lens and you’ll probably have a better time if you don’t. The fact that it doesn’t feel like awards-bait is part of why it’s fun to watch. It’s a well-crafted big screen event movie that stands out from this year’s pack of blockbusters for its context, if not for its content. And, frankly, that’s more than enough.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.