As part of our coverage of the 47th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Meg Shields reviews Gina Prince-Bythewood’s bloody historical epic, ‘The Woman King,’ starring Viola Davis and Lashana Lynch. Follow along with more coverage in our Toronto International Film Festival archives.
I’m not sure that we need any more historical epics where two opposing sides politely shoot at each other from opposite ends of a field. We have been spoiled by The Woman King’s incredible pitch that big, partially serrated knives and near superhuman discipline are all you need, actually. Why fire your musket fruitlessly into a forest when you can treat your enemy like a human jungle gym before lodging your recently-filed nails knuckle-deep into his eye sockets?
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who readers might remember best for Love & Basketball (2000) and The Secret Life of Bees (2008), The Woman King tells a fictionalized account of the real-life political tension between the small but mighty Kingdom of Dahomey and their tributary adversary, the Oyo Empire, which has allied itself with imperialist forces in exchange for guns and horses. The film dramatizes Dahomey’s attempts to defend itself from the Oyo threat through the eyes of the Agojie, an all-female army led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis). Our audience surrogate on the ground is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a strong-willed teenager who is pawned off on the court after her father deems her an unweddable lost cause. While Nawi attempts to prove herself, Nanisca barrels forward in an effort to protect her people from the Oyo and convince the king (John Boyega) to put a stop to her community’s financial reliance on the Atlantic Slave Trade.
For those wondering, the macro struggles depicted in The Woman King are grounded in real history, albeit whitewashed both in terms of Hollywood palatability and in the sense that the film was written by two white women (Dana Stevens and Maria Bello, who enjoys a story credit). Much of the kingdom’s real history during this period is messy and unsatisfying, walking back narrative closure-marking “we did it!” moments the film assures us will certainly not lurch back from the dead after the credits roll. But, such narrative smoothness is the nature of historical epics of this caliber. And The Woman King can’t be faulted for playing the crowd-pleasing game set down by its peers.
Before we go any further, we should praise Lashana Lynch, who appears as Izogie, the Agojie soldier who forms a special bond with Nawi. She is warm, deeply funny, and the kind of open-hearted big sister we all wish we had. Furthermore, you should all be furious that “Viola Davis, action star” is a sentence that has only recently entered the pop culture lexicon. The presence, power, and command that Davis brings to all her films are allowed to take physical shape here. She inhabits the role like a veteran action star so maybe let’s just close our eyes and convince ourselves that Hollywood had the guts to do as much.
When you break The Woman King down into its component parts, the film doesn’t exactly bring anything new to the bloodstained table. There are formulaic conventions and familiar plot beats aplenty, from teenage flings with someone from enemy lines to power-hungry consorts to spicier details that I wouldn’t dare spoil here. Don’t expect the film to deviate from the historical war epic’s well-trod path.
That said, while it’s true that The Woman King doesn’t do anything new or rebellious formulaically, the same cannot be said of its execution, which is where the film really shines. Sure, we’ve seen emotionally closed-off generals with traumatic backstories before. But have we seen them played by a nearly 60-year-old Oscar-winning Black actress? And yeah, we’ve seen soldiers sing morale-boosting songs around roaring fires plenty of times. But the full-body joy and emotional abandon of the Agojie’s ritual and celebratory singing is on a whole other level. Even at its most narratively contrived, the way in which the well-worn tropes play out is so blood-soaked and new that the telenovela of it all felt incidental.
In a sea of cool-toned, sepia-dulled war epics, The Woman King is an outlier. The film’s enthusiastic embrace of saturation and all the nooks and crannies of the color spectrum make it a delight to watch. Gersha Phillips’ lushly textured costume design ranges from the thoughtfully functional uniforms of the Agojie to peacocking court splendor. If you’re an appreciator of the production design that has to go into historical epics, but you’re tired of everyone looking like drapes in a retirement home, this is the film for you.
On a somewhat related note, it’s worth mentioning that The Woman King is arguably one of the most physically brutal entries in its genre: bones snap through bruised skin, heads roll, and insides become outsides with striking regularity. While the film has guns, for the most part, the characters overwhelmingly opt for something a little more intimate. As a result, enemies don’t drop like flies so much as crumple like punctured aluminum foil filled with raspberry jam. If you’re looking for a big-feeling movie that delivers on spectacle and spares no expense in the bloodbath department, The Woman King has got you covered (in blood, probably).
The Woman King is playing theatrically in the United States on September 16, 2022. You can watch the trailer here.