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From the moment Gina Prince-Bythewood became a director, her strength has always resided in her commitment to love stories. In her films, sumptuous twilight passions happen on a basketball court, they occur between generations, on the ladder rungs of show business, and between immortals. They center Black women carrying power and interiority, while finding strength within themselves, and often, other Black women. With her Netflix produced film, “The Old Guard,” she continued those themes on a grander scale. But nothing in her filmography can wholly prepare you for the lushness of her latest work.
In going into “The Woman King,” a big-hearted action-epic whose major challenge is being sincere and historical while fulfilling its blockbuster requirements, you might feel some hesitation. Especially in a cinematic landscape that prizes broad statements on race over sturdy storytelling. You might wonder how Prince-Bythewood can shape a tale centering the Agojie warriors—an all-woman group of soldiers sworn to honor and sisterhood—hailing from the West African kingdom of Dahomey, when one considers their hand in perpetuating the transatlantic slave trade. It’s a towering task approached by Prince-Bythewood and screenwriter Dana Stevens with gentle sensitivity, and a fierce desire to show Black women as the charters of their own destiny.
The film begins with flair: A group of men lounge at the center of a field by a campfire. They hear rustling in the tallgrass; they see a flock of birds fly away on a breeze. Suddenly a menacing Viola Davis playing Nanisca, the world-weary Agojie general, emerges from the grass armed with a machete. An entire platoon then appears behind her. The ensuing slaughter of the men (the women in the village are left unharmed), is soaked in delirious gore, and is part of this warrior ensemble’s mission to free their imprisoned kin. Nanisca, however, loses so many comrades in the process that she decides to train a new batch of recruits.
After the thrilling opening battle scene, the plot to “The Woman King” can feel convoluted. But its excesses serve the film’s blockbuster goals. A defiant teenager, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), is offered up as a gift to the young King Ghezo (John Boyega) by her domineering father, who is frustrated with his obstinate daughter’s refusal to marry her many suitors. Nawi, however, never makes it to the King, as the unflinching yet fun warrior Izogie (a phenomenal Lashana Lynch), sees Nawi’s resistance as a strength, and enlists her in Nanisca’s training. Being part of the Agojie promises freedom to all involved, but not to those they conquer. The defeated are offered as tribute to the draconian Oyo Empire, who then deal their fellow Africans as slaves to Europeans in exchange for guns. It’s a circle of oppression that the guilt-ridden Nanisca wants the King to break. In the meantime, a dream has haunted Nanisca, and the disobedient Nawa, who struggles with upholding some of Agojie clan’s strict requirements, particularly the "No Men" part. It might be the key to what ails her.
Despite these clunky narrative beats—there’s a twist halfway through that nearly causes the story to fall apart—the sheer pleasure of “The Woman King” resides in the bond shared by these Black women. They are the film’s love story as they commit to each other as much as they do to their grueling training. Vast compositions of Black women caring and nurturing each other proliferate “The Woman King,” and the rituals and songs they share adds further layers to their deep devotion.
Prince-Bythewood isn’t afraid to rely on emotional heft in an action movie. Every actor in this deep ensemble is granted their own space; they're organically challenged but never artificially wielded as a teaching tool for white audiences. Sheila Atim, who along with Mbedu turned in a stellar performance in Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad,” is measured, aware, and giving as Nanisca’s trusted second-in-command Amenza. Boyega is commanding yet beguiling as a king projecting confidence while still learning what it means to lead (many of his line readers are instantly quotable).
“The Woman King,” however, is quite messy. The overuse of VFX for landscapes, fake extras, and fire often flattens the compositions by cinematographer Polly Morgan; she finds greater latitude in capturing the bruising yet precise fight choreography. And the low-simmering romance that emerges between Nawa and Malik, a ripped Portuguese-Dahomen fantasy (Jordan Bolger) returning to discover his roots, while clear in its intent to test Nawa’s dedication to her sisters, is unintentionally comical in its awkwardness. The script far too often also tries to neatly tie together these characters, especially Nawi and Nanisca.
But when “The Woman King” works, it’s majestic. The tactile costumes by Gersha Phillips ("Star Trek Discovery") and the detailed production design by Akin McKenzie (“Wild Life” and “When They See Us”) feel lived in and vibrant, especially in the vital rendering of the Dahomey Kingdom, which is teeming with scenes of color and community. Terilyn A. Shropshire’s slick, intelligent editing allows this grand epic to breathe. And the evocative score by Terence Blanchard and Lebo M. gives voice to the Agojie’s fighting spirit.
Though Davis is the movie’s obvious star, turning in an aching and psychically demanding performance that’s matched pound for pound with her interiority, Mbedu reaffirms herself as a star too. She gives herself over to the tale of a woman who so desires to be heard that she never backs down to anyone. A glimmer follows Mbedu in her every line read, and gloom follows her in devastation. There’s one scene where she cries over the body of a fallen warrior and lets out a wail with an impact that travels from your toes to your spleen.
The subplots in “The Woman King” might undo it for some. But the magnitude and the awe this movie inspires are what epics like “Gladiator” and “Braveheart” are all about. They’re meant for your heart to override your brain, to pull you toward a rousing splendor, to put a lump in your throat. In between the large, sprawling battles of "The Woman King," and in between the desire to not yield to white outside forces and the urge to topple oppressive and racist systems, the guide is sisterly love, Black love. Thrilling and enrapturing, emotionally beautiful and spiritually buoyant, “The Woman King” isn’t just an uplifting battle cry. It’s the movie Prince-Bythewood has been building toward throughout her entire career. And she doesn’t miss.
This review was filed from the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10th. "The Woman King" opens on September 16th.
Viola Davis as Nanisca
Thuso Mbedu as Nawi
Lashana Lynch as Izogie
Sheila Atim as Amenza
John Boyega as King Ghezo
Hero Fiennes Tiffin as Santo Ferreira