The Woman King Review: Davis and company kill it in an otherwise okay historical action epic
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King is undoubtedly her biggest film to date in terms of sheer scope and the talent it boasts but can’t exactly live up to the hype.
The film takes viewers into the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1820s where the kingdom’s all female army, the Agojie, are fighting against a rival kingdom that’s aligned with a band of European slave traders to protect their kingdom. Prince-Bythewood’s vision for The Woman King is truly epic as she crafts a richly tense atmosphere fitting for the Agojie’s brutal fighting skills and a visually engaging setting. The world of The Woman King is large in scope with the vast environments it showcases, and the way Prince-Bythewood captures them makes you invested in seeing more of it be explored. When in Agojie’s section in Dahomey, it really feels like an army training camp and offers a good appetizer for a lot of the great action it delivers.
Prince-Bythewood clearly took some notes from directing The Old Guard for the action and it pays off well in creating these brutal moments of bloodshed, even for a PG-13 flick. The action choreography is great, and the fights are ambitiously big making them worthy of seeing on the big screen. Not to mention, Prince-Bythewood has brought together one incredible female ensemble to elevate and lead the film’s intensity and deliver some memorably great performances.
Lashawna Lynch and Sheila Atim give great supporting performances that showcase their respective characters’, Izogie (Lynch) and Amenza (Atim), physical prowess as well as their more personal and emotional sides. Thuso Mbedo gives a breakout performance that sees her lead one of the film’s stronger character arcs and confidently hold her own against big acting talents. The true star of The Woman King is undoubtedly Viola Davis as Agojie general Nanisca as she’s never looked fiercer. Many know that Davis can bring a great intensity to the screen just through her acting, but as Nanisca she brings that same intensity to the character’s physicality only making her screen presence even more dominating. It’s a role that feels destined for Davis because of the way she elevates Nanisca in every way, especially the arcs and emotion within her story.
The Woman King can absolutely let its casting and atmospheric strengths flourish when it needs to and there’s no doubt that it being a historical action epic with a majority black cast makes it leave a huge impact when it comes to having greater black presence in film. However, the overall viewing experience of The Woman King often struggles to live up to its potential because it can’t confidently figure out what it exactly wants to be.
Often, The Woman King tries to find a balance between offering historical and cultural context for its story and big cinematic action set pieces, but rarely can. For its historical bits, the film never has enough depth to immerse viewers into its place in history. The disjointedness and rushed nature of the film’s storytelling generally leads to things being glossed over or not being delved into as much as it should. There’s very little time dedicated to really delving into the cultural dynamics Dahomey or the Agojie and while there are some very atmospheric and cool ritual scenes when new recruits are being brought in, they don’t leave much of a meaningful mark outside of being cool set pieces.
The film also barely delves into the more complex world of slavery it presents and misses out on giving a unique perspective on slavery within Africa as the Dahomey play their own role in slave trades with their own people. Most of the time the film rests on generic and recycled reasoning as to why the Dahomey’s participation in slavery is bad and it leads to the depictions feeling thin and the conversations surrounding this issue leaving little impact.
As for The Woman King also trying to be a big action blockbuster, it really doesn’t offer enough action sequences to ramp up its pacing and it feels overstuffed with generic storylines that water down its characters. A lot of the storylines introduced, mainly surrounding the new recruits coming in and this sudden connection between Nanisca and Nawi (Mbedu), feel forced or are recycled generic plot threads that really water down the characters into being overly familiar. None of them ever feel like they ever reach their full potential making them very underwhelming and thin. Also, there are certain parts of Terence Blanchard’s more orchestral score that feel out of place with how modern they feel and at times it would be better if it wasn’t there at all.
Prince-Bythewood and company definitely have a strong showing with The Woman King thanks to great performance and an admirably large scope, but it ultimately struggles to create a consistent experience that allows its historically cultural story and its cinematic action to reach its full potential.