A 19th century African nation and its army of female warriors fends off a rival kingdom.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, and Lashana Lynch
Review by Jon Kissel
Going into The Woman King, the smug discourse about it had created expectations. Directed by a Black woman with two female writers and a cast heavily weighted towards women, the film looks like an empowerment story and was marketed as such. The backlash, gleefully generated by the types of commentators who love to point out the slave trade’s African partners, was quick and condescending and suspiciously absent when a similarly distorted epic about European or biblical characters comes out. Despite this bad-faith criticism, there is something in certain strains of progressivism that places diversity as the end-all be-all, with last year’s rainbow-colored bullets in a Marine recruitment ad as a recent example. My radar was up for something similar in The Woman King, where the value is placed on African women being bad-asses at the expense of what happens when the battle is over i.e. the survivors are enslaved and shipped to distant continents.
That’s not at all the case. To the surprise of no one, the dissenters didn’t watch what they were criticizing. There’s a recurring trope in The Woman King about characters being warned not to throw their lives away to save one person. The Agojie is a collective unit, and breaking ranks to save one puts them all at risk. The broader metaphor amongst the various African kingdoms is in how they can rise over their rivals by partnering with Europeans and enslaving as many people as possible. That’s what survival means, if the circle of value can be drawn around only one’s own kingdom. The Woman King doesn’t have slavery-era scenes of brutality, but it communicates how humiliating and deadening enslavement is, and how supporting it means that you’ve created the possibility it will one day come for you. Making the group safer means endangering the individual. The film is engaged with the thorny dilemma that high-powered characters find themselves in, and it finds a way to represent that for characters at Nawi’s status. In both cases, the resolution is to strengthen the group by valuing the individual, to feel the pain of the expedient path and resolve to stay off of it. The Woman King skirts its pitfall of being about a slaver kingdom by coming to a period-appropriate condemnation of itself.
With that wrinkle addressed, the film can get down to business as a historical epic of a better-than-average quality. The political wrangling of these kinds of movies is often my favorite part, and watching Boyega and Davis grapple with court language and propriety is exactly what I want. Their problems are identical to any medieval lord, and The Woman King speaks to the rich history of Africa and the wealth of stories that could potentially be told about it, over and above the ones that get into the Hollywood bloodstream about child soldiers and blood diamonds. The production design and costuming are suitably impressive for a mid-sized budget, and the fighting is appropriately unique for a new corner of the historical epic world. Lots of grappling, lots of ropes. Prince-Bythewood made her name with romances, and The Woman King allows her to successfully branch out into new genres. Davis isn’t doing as much branching out, but there’s no one else to cast for the role of Nanisca. Brimming with gravitas and credibility, she’s predictably great. Lynch is given a wider range in her very fun role as the hammy drill sergeant, but it’s Mbedu who breaks out. A diminutive ball of energy, she conveys how badly she wants to be with the Agojie and also how hard it is for her to conform. Her fierce independence brought her here, but that’s also what’s endangering her position.
What’s working in The Woman King makes what’s falling short stand out all the more. A subplot involving a mixed-race Portuguese man is unnecessary and predictable, and the film’s tossed-off nod to a romantic angle. Some of the supporting characters fail to distinguish themselves, and time with their nondescript characters is less spent on the characters who are leaping off the screen. These irritations make The Woman King into merely one of Prince-Bythewood’s better films as opposed to her best. B+