The Woman King (Review): I Need More Movies Like This

I’m always game for historical stories– especially ones inspired by true events. Was The Woman King one worth my time? Read on for my review…

Dahomey’s new king, Ghezo, wishes to bring about a new era for his kingdom: free from tributary status by the Oyo Empire. He enacts his vision through the efforts of The Agojie: feared female warriors who live to defend their king, and their kingdom of Dahomey. The Woman King‘s revolves around a new Agojie recruit named Nawi, who seeks freedom from her stifling life amid a new sister-hood. But her arrogance brings her into conflict with the Agojie’s leader, General Nanisca.

The Woman King is an intense and badass historical epic! It’s full of action, political intrigue, and compelling ruminations. Yet TWK’s primary feature is an unexpected emotional and personal story about two women helping each other grow.

I demand Hollywood gimme more big budget movies about African history– or world history in general! I love when entertainment offers me a window into worlds about which I knew nothing. Pure fantasy escapism is great, but movies like The Woman King compel me to research real places, people, and events. So I earn a greater appreciation and understanding of our complex world, and how its disparate pieces combine to build our shared histories.

The Woman King takes pains to show off Agojie and Dahomey culture: their politics, fashions, and music. I can’t speak to how authentic any of these elements are historically. But I can say that, for this movie, the filmmakers built a compelling and fleshed-out world.

Speaking of building a world: TWK’s set designs and costumes blew me away. They were beautiful, and deserve consideration for awards!

The Woman King is largely built on its actors and characters. Its leads are well-rounded personalities and felt like real, complex people. I wished to spend more time with them, after TWK ended. Their stories fascinated me!

Viola Davis is the stand-out of this cast. I’ll get to Davis’ acting in a sec, but I must first note that she is impressively dedicated to her craft. Davis got jacked to play General Nanisca! My respect goes out to Davis all the more since she doesn’t normally take these roles. She, more than any of her cast-mates, LOOKS like someone I wouldn’t wanna fight.

General Nanisca carries herself with a quiet, stoic power. She’s level-headed, idealistic, and an awesome leader. And she can command a room without raising her voice. Yet she’s granted a level of vulnerability in private company, and struggles with traumas from her past. Davis brilliantly portrays all these facets of Nanisca, and was magnetic to watch from start to finish! Nanisca is one of the best-written characters I’ve seen in a movie this year.

Izogie (Lashana Lynch) mentors Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) in The Woman King
(Photo Credit: TriStar Pictures)

Thuso Mbedu portrays the outspoken Nawi: The Woman King‘s protagonist. Nawi has good reason for joining the Agojie, and her transformation from weak village girl to badass is well-handled. But her arrogance was occasionally irksome to me. I know it was part of her story, but it didn’t help me to root for her. Nawi’s constant disobedience felt disrespectful of her fellow sisters’ beliefs.

Though I, as a writer of all people, shouldn’t harp on a character’s intentionally written flaws. That’s all too rare nowadays. In essence: Nawi was well-written. And I was emotionally invested in her story. And her flaws bothered me because I wished to watch the character grow.

Other stand-outs from TWK’s cast include Lashana Lynch as Izogie, and John Boyega as King Ghezo. Lynch somewhat over-acts for my tastes, but her choices distinguish Izogie as a memorable personality. And Boyega offers an unexpectedly low-key performance as the King– which I find refreshing because royalty are often portrayed as big personalities. Yet Boyega (like Davis) is also intimidating, with an underlying menace which suggests his quiet demeanor should not be pushed.

Polly Morgan’s Cinematography is some of the most breath-taking I’ve seen in a while! The African landscapes, jungles, and cities on display are gorgeous. I’ve never been to Africa, but The Woman King makes me want to visit more than ever (I very well might plan a trip tp those shooting locations).

And Terence Blanchard wrote a powerful score. I’m not used to hearing music of this style, which is probably why it stood out. But I could see myself listening to TWK’s soundtrack.

The Woman King‘s great action choreography couples with brutal and effective sound design to provide a visceral experience. The stunt-work especially impressed me. The way those women handle their weapons, and incorporate acrobatics into their combat was astounding. It somehow looked both practical and performative.

Yet the pacing of action sequences moved too quickly. I blame this flaw more on the editors than the production crew, because the shots appeared well-filmed. So many quick cuts meant that I could rarely tell what was happening, beyond a few brief glimpses. I’d like to give the editors the benefit of the doubt and suggest they were intentionally crafting a frantic spectacle. But that doesn’t make for good entertainment.

Actually, The Woman King is terribly paced in general. Its runtime hovers around two hours but felt like three. It just went on and on and on with little forward momentum. I wouldn’t fault anyone who thought this film was boring.

I also found it hard to pin down TWK’s main theme. And that’s a big one for me because I believe stories ought to have a point. Why else do we tell them?

The closest thing to a central theme I could gather from TWK is “greatness cannot exist without freedom”. Dahomey’s ties to the slave trade and European powers make it a weaker nation, Nanisca’s inner demons stifle her potential, local women would rather be Agojie than wives or captives, etc.

I loved The Woman King as I watched it. But that love quickly wore down to above-average enjoyment. TWK’s pacing was hard to stomach, and I took little away from the story. Though it was filled with awesomeness and. Gina Prince-Bythewood offers a solid directorial vision for this story, and I look forward to more of her work in the future!

The Woman King impressed me enough to call it Pretty Darn Good.

What are some recommendations for African historical stories? What did you think of The Woman King? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know.

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Till next time,

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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