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The Woman King

MOVIE | This epic set in 1820s West Africa shows two female warriors defending their homeland from enemies of any origin

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<em>The Woman King</em>
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Rated PG-13
➤ Theaters
➤ S3 / V7 / L2*

In The Woman King director Gina Prince-Bythewood delivers an epic film about a historical group of black women warriors that is worthy of comparison to Gladiator and Braveheart. Our present cultural moment feels ripe for a cinematic black warrior princess who puts the blade to her white oppressors, but Prince-Bythewood doesn’t grab the low-hanging fruit. Instead, the two female warriors at the center of The Woman King uphold a nobler calling: defending their homeland from enemies of any origin.

The film is set in the 1820s in the West African kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now the nation of Benin. The characters and events are fictitious, but they derive from legends about the Agojie (ah-GO-jee-ay), a real female fighting unit from that era. In the film, Viola Davis plays Nanisca, the general who leads the Agojie into battle. They must face the dominant Oyo tribe that raids Dahomey villages and sells captives to European slave traders. Who could have guessed that Davis, star of Fences and The Help, would be cast as a scimitar-­slinging warrior with hair pulled up into a curly Mohawk? The most Oscar-nominated black actress in history plays the tough-minded, battle-weary career soldier to ­perfection. Perhaps the casting choice sends its own message about underestimating women.

Nanisca has a vulnerable side, too. A dark episode from her past haunts her and wakes her at night. She also has the ear of Dahomey’s politically shifty King Ghezo (John Boyega), who profits personally from the sale of African captives the Dahomey warriors take in battle. Nanisca tries to persuade Ghezo to put a stop to the practice. Prince-Bythewood doesn’t shy away from revisiting the sad record of blacks selling blacks into bondage, but her invented opposition to the practice does make the historical women complicit in enslaving others more palatable for a modern audience looking for “the good guys.”

While Davis’ work deservedly takes the headlines, Thuso Mbedu gives an equally powerful performance as headstrong 19-year-old Nawi. Early on, after Nawi attacks the man she’s promised to as a bride, her father drags her to Ghezo’s palace and abandons her there. Nawi decides to train with the Agojie simply to have a place to stay. Military discipline does little to quell her independent streak, though, and she’s often at odds with Nanisca. Mbedu’s entire performance is captivating. When Nawi weeps bitterly at a friend’s death, many viewers will weep with her.

The most Oscar-nominated black actress in history plays the tough-minded, battle-weary career soldier to perfection.

The film has many fine visual elements to go along with the superb acting. Filmed in South Africa, lush sets capture the horror of slave pens and the splendor of tropical palaces. Ghezo’s 10 wives are painted in exquisite makeup. But Prince-Bythewood occasionally settles for cinematics tuned to modern viewers’ expectations: Some of the Agojie’s acrobatic fighting scenes seem out of a Marvel Comics film with choreographed spins and kicks surely foreign to crowded 19th-century African battlegrounds. Seeing the slightly built Nawi dispatch grown men two or three times her size requires suspension of ­disbelief. There’s also a love story involving a hunky outsider who causes Nawi to reconsider her vow of celibacy.

The Woman King has little sensuality and bad language. In the fight scenes, most of the fatal blows are not shown, but the brutal violence and bloodletting lean toward an R rating. While the images of idol worship reflect that culture’s practices, a superfluous scene during the closing credits, in which a woman meditates amid a cluster of small statues, defies explanation.

Many viewers will see the film as a testament to women’s power and bodily autonomy. Even so, there’s a striking exchange late in the film that doesn’t easily fit the progressive narrative. A major character embraces her daughter who was conceived in rape, and tells her, “You are not the thing that hurt me.”

She’s right: Greater than a ­woman’s power to destroy life is her ability to give it.

*Ratings from kids-in-mind.com, with quantity of sexual (S), violent (V), and foul-language (L) content on a 0-10 scale, with 10 high

Bob Brown

Bob is a movie reviewer for WORLD. He is a World Journalism Institute graduate and works as a math professor. Bob resides with his wife, Lisa, and five kids in Bel Air, Md.



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