Synopsis: The remarkable story of the Agojie, the all-female unit of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s with skills and a fierceness unlike anything the world has ever seen.
Stars: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Adrienne Warren, Jordan Bolger
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Running Length: 135 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: At some point, much lauded and well-seasoned actors that have paid their dues in the business get to pick whatever projects they want to without apology. That’s my thinking, at least. Giving their all to studio pictures and independent productions over time, these actors have been through the Hollywood wringer of press tours and galas, awards shows, and far-flung media events. So, when an actress like Meryl Streep chose to do Mamma Mia! and people were aghast, I was thrilled because it felt like a project she wanted to do, rather than one she felt she had to.
Initially, I felt like Streep’s co-star in Doubt, Viola Davis, was taking a page from that same playbook with The Woman King. The movie had all the makings of a passion project that allowed Davis another prestige run at the Best Actress Oscar while telling an important piece of world history. Surrounded by an array of up-and-coming talent and helmed by a director who has more than paid her dues in the industry, the entire package has the essence of pre-destination toward one goal. That kind of turned me away from it. Originally.
Once again, it shows you just how much of an impact marketing has on the viewer. Far more commercial than expected, The Woman King is rousing entertainment that hits the ground running and barely takes a breath over the next 135 minutes. Oscar-winner Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) disappears into the role, dedicating herself physically and emotionally to the work. Featuring terrific supporting performances you can engage with, this could be a word-of-mouth sleeper hit if enough people get to it early on and keep it in the conversation.
A quick history lesson at the top of the film gives audiences the backstory of the Kingdom of Dahomey and its conflicts with the neighboring Oyo Empire. With the Kingdom guaranteeing their survival by organizing their economic income around the Atlantic slave trade with the Europeans, there was much strife as they quickly grew in power, wealth, and status. Protecting these resources were the Dahomey Amazons, the Agojie, which grew in strength and number after the males of their population fell to wars with the Oyo.
General Nanisca (Davis) is the respected leader of the Agojie, rising to a high rank as a trusted confidant and advisor to the King (John Boyega), encouraging many successful decisions that kept them secure. She has concerns over the increased reliance on the slave trade, hoping to redirect the King’s attention to exporting goods available on their land instead of the people with families that could harvest it. The Agojie must maintain their numbers and have just accepted a new batch of recruits that will need to train and pass a series of tests. Among them is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a girl turned out of her house for refusing a pre-arranged marriage.
Headstrong and fearless, Nawi would make a perfect Agojie if she could turn off her emotions as quickly as the others. The more Nanisca and her two most revered second-in-commands, Izogie (Lashana Lynch, No Time to Die) and Amenza (Sheila Atim, Bruised), push Nawi to break away from the spirit that guides her, the harder she fights to retain her individuality. With tensions rising between visiting Europeans hoping to broker better deals between Dahomey for enslaved people and the Oyo who want to move in on this business, the Agojie will band together to ward off those threatening their land as well as their family.
Bound to draw comparisons to semi-similar works such as Braveheart and Gladiator, in the end, The Woman King sits capably on a throne of its creation. Screenwriters Maria Bello (an Oscar-nominated actress most recently seen in The Water Man) and Dana Stevens (who penned 1993 thriller Blink) did their homework, making an effort before the movie was even off the ground to ensure the film had accuracy and a valid point of view from which to speak. They’ve partnered nicely with their star, who takes the leading role and surprises us again with the mastery of her craft. Another transformative part she can add to her lengthy list of incredible roles, Davis charts the cracks Nanisca shows and how it begins to eat away at her ability to be the same leader she was in the past.
Amplifying her performance is Mbedu as the headstrong newbie of the group. Whether it was intimidating going toe-to-toe with Davis or not, it’s no small feat to swipe scenes out from under the more experienced star. Yet Mbedu is fascinating to watch each time she’s on screen, learning internal truths about herself through her training and time with her Agojie sisters and conveying them outwardly to us in small ways. You’d be hard-pressed to choose an MVP in The Woman King between Lynch and Atim; both offer beautifully realized different sides to the same coin flipping back and forth between Davis and Mbedu.
If there’s one area where The Woman King struggles, it’s the male characters. Every man is presented as an obstacle to some woman trying to get the job done. This plot device is well-worn, and while Boyega (Breaking) fares the best, the rest are as crudely drawn as the woman finely etched. That’s especially evident in Jordan Bolger’s storyline with Mbedu, adding a romantic subplot that feels like a concession for the studio instead of a fully realized development. The sparks aren’t there between the actors (more Bolger’s fault than anything), and anytime they’re together, the film drags significantly.
Prince-Bythewood is comfortable staging the movie, whether it be a large-scale action sequence or a more intimate moment shared between the women when they let their guards down. These human passages give the film its best heart and set the stage for the battles that get more involved as you understand the Agojie better. Once you have a warrior to root for, you track their every move and hope no harm comes to them. A new, more realistic hero for a young generation to look up to (it’s PG-13 and astonishingly gruesome), the Agojie and The Woman King are getting ready to reign.