While the journey to the silver screen may have started in 2015, The Woman King‘s journey to the silver screen has been one that saw change ripple throughout Hollywood. Actress-turned-first-time writer Maria Bello (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Lights Out) turned out a story and script with Dana Stevens in conjunction with Gina Prince-Bythewood. The latter had not yet shown what a fun action director she could be as The Old Guard was still a few years off and a pre-Black Panther world had not yet shown the true hunger audiences had for seeing black leads in blockbuster films (i.e. Hollywood hadn’t fully realized that representation matters). The landscape has changed and it is such a ripe time for The Woman King to land in theaters.
It’s tough to look at this film – one about female African warriors that lands as a badass action epic – and not wonder why films like this are still an exception in Hollywood. This type of standard was woefully lacking when the film was pitched in 2015 and it seems to still be today, with few of these truly heartfelt hits being made.
That isn’t to say that The Woman King doesn’t fall under some of the same umbrellas that many action films do. It’s operatic, with gut-wrenching emotional twists that feel Hollywoodized despite the fact that you’ve never seen anything quite like this onscreen before. Its large-scale battle sequences feel comfortingly familiar despite each containing something new to the genre, whether it be clever uses of gunpowder or merely women getting to live as badass movie stars in an Africa-set story. There’s humor, romance, honor, duty, and sick kills to make you pause and try to remember what the MPAA rating was. This is a large-scale epic, meant for everyone, and from its Star-Wars-esque opening crawl to its delightfully on-the-nose finale it’ll delight a full, raucous crowd full of everyone from film nerds to casual moviegoers.
The film opens in 1823, when the Kingdom of Dahomey was on the rise due to its participation in the slave trade with white colonialist traders. Their leader, King Ghezo (John Boyega), still openly supports this trade but feels pressure from the leader of his royal guard to drop the practice. Those guards, the all-female warrior group known as the Agojie, are led by Nanisca (Viola Davis) into vicious battles where they slaughter their way through their enemies, the Oyo. These two nations go back and forth, capturing one another as slaves to sell to traders at the local port, and the Kingdom of Dahomey remains under constant threat.
Enter the new trainees, meant to boost the Agojie’s numbers as they move into the final stages of war with the Oyo. These new recruits include iron-willed Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a young woman of nineteen that has been given to the palace by her family after she rejected the idea of being sold into marriage. Mbedu is an absolutely magnetic screen presence and serves as a co-lead for the film, a role that demands physicality and nuance as well as agression and larger emotional moments. This is her first onscreen role and I’m excited to see just what the future has in store for her. If we’re meant to get more fare like The Woman King then we might be seeing her a great deal.
Part of what sets this above other modern action films is its dedication to making each character feel fully realized rather than like African Terminators. Much of this comes down the work put in by supporting players Lashana Lynch (whom you recently saw in No Time to Die) and Sheila Atim. These two put in a lot of effort to make the early training sessions feel personal and impactful, led by real people instead of cliches. Lynch chuckles her way through trauma as she swills bootleg booze snuck over the walls of the palace for her, all while Atim sincerely attempts to read her partner’s future from a handful of nuts. There’s pieces of former lives and emotional connections in every one of the Agojie, even the new recruits, and it pairs well with the film’s other strengths to create a rich, lush world.
That world is set in its on-location shoot, utilizing the landscape of West Africa to ground the story in a real place. Production designer Akin McKenzie has put in a triumphant effort to create a Dahomey that feels real, lived-in, and yet grandiose on the big screen. That goes ditto for the costume and makeup departments, led by Gersha Phillips and Louisa V. Anthony. Much was made of how accurate to the time this film would be, and while I don’t have the scholarly knowledge to really determine how well they nailed it I can confirm that it looks absolutely incredible in the film.
Composer Terence Blanchard (Da 5 Bloods, BlackKklansman) pops in to deliver a lush score, rife with style changes and tonal shifts that work with each moment and scene. It’s a minimalist score, one that is rousing when it needs to be and absolutely gone when it knows it isn’t necessary, and it helps add to the lean and mean attitude of the Agojie warriors. This might be the largest-scale film he’s done so far, and he cuts loose alongside everyone else to bring a world to life. It’s a set of beautiful pieces and is one of those scores I’d love to see performed live.
There are parts of the film that don’t completely land, but I understand why they are there. The decision to include a heterosexual romance in a film about virginal warriors is an odd one, particularly when Malik (Jordan Bolger) is styled to be a romance novel cover model with only enough character to have someone realize the horrors of slavery for the audience. I understand that this kind of onscreen romance is what gets a film like this made, let alone a wide theatrical release, but it feels out of place and the film itself seems disinterested in that whole aspect.
But no matter, because the film succeeds beyond that small trifle. Prince-Bythewood has delivered a stunner, and every team member matched her energy to create a beautifully-realized world. The Woman King is a stunner, and audiences deserve more like this in favor of some of the more bland and unenthusiastic blockbusters that reign prominent.
The Woman King is currently in theaters.