The Woman King Is an Exhilarating Action Spectacle

We’ve become so conditioned by years of watching men fight men onscreen—jabbing with spears, blamming with guns, high-kicking the daylights out of each other with a mighty Oof—that, the Amazons of the Wonder Woman movies notwithstanding, it’s a novelty to see women going at it. That’s just one of the pleasures of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s history-based adventure epic The woman KingViola Davis is the all-female general in this movie. This movie is set in 19th century Dahomey West Africa, where there was a powerful female military force called the Agojie. The screenwriter Dana Stevens took liberties with historical facts. However, the warrior women did actually exist. As Maria Bello has written, Dahomey sold war prisoners to European slave traders. But if the film’s historical underpinnings are fascinating, it works beautifully on a mythical level as well: it’s exhilarating to watch these women fighting possibly even more fearlessly than men do, even as they navigate the complications of living within their own close-knit society. This action film has heartbeat.

Davis plays Nanisca, and our first glimpse of her and her troops in the opening scene is a magnificent one: as they’re set to attack an enemy encampment, Nanisca rises from a field of grassy cover, her eyes resolute as a tiger’s; the other women pop up around her, silently, though you can almost hear their nerves whirring. The battle sequence that follows is sharp and concise, a cyclone of sinewy limbs and blazing machetes that’s part stylized interpretive dance, part traditional fight choreography. It’s inspiring to just watch the women dance.

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Ghezo, a new Dahomey king (John Boyega), is now in charge of the kingdom. He and Nanisca respect Nanisca more than any other person in their kingdom and seek to disarm the Oyo Empire to which Dahomey has paid tribute for many years. Both the Oyo and the Dahomey feed the slave trade to some degree, a reality that doesn’t sit well with Nanisca: She’s ambitious—she aspires to be named the Woman King, an honor that Ghezo has the power to bestow on her. But she also urges Ghezo to find ways beyond slave trafficking to enrich his kingdom—she believes the export of palm oil could be the answer.

Lashana Lynch in the midst of fierce battle (Ilze Kitshoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Lashana Lynch during a fierce fight

Ilze Kitshoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment

Yet as wise and respected Nanisca she is, she’s plagued by personal demons that she has kept secret from nearly every one of her sister soldiers. Nawi, a new, ball-of fire recruit (played by Thuso Mabedu), of The Underground RailroadYou can see her shakiness slipping further. Davis, unsurprisingly, is terrific at balancing Nanisca’s blazing confidence with her gnawing self-doubt, though another actor comes close to stealing the show: As Izogie, the soldier in charge of training the young aspiring warriors, Lashana Lynch doesn’t so much stride through the movie as whirl her way through it, often on a cloud of wit. Her heavy eyebrows frame her mischievous eyes like a hovering cloud; she’s like a gorgeous, Amazonian Groucho. Nawi is shown a scene in which she describes to Nawi the process of finding just the right stones to sharpen her machete. She also uses her impressively pointed talons for an auxiliary weapon that can be used to extract eyeballs. Even though she is fumbling, Nawi seems genuinely impressed. This is a manicure you don’t want to mess with.

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There’s a great deal of pageantry and glamor in the costumes and production design, courtesy of Gersha Phillips and Akin McKenzie: The warriors wear dazzling stripey tunics; fierce-looking tailored cuffs curl around their ears. In the palace courtyards where women learn how to fight, there is a wealth of golden and sandy colors. Shot by Polly Morgan, the movie has a fanciful, imaginative look rather than a stolidly historical one, though it’s easy enough to imagine these women, en masse, as real human beings who lived and breathed in another time and place.

The Queen of Women is also further proof, if you need it, of Prince-Bythewood’s sterling instincts. The best thing about moviemaking in the first quarter of 21st-century is the fact that more people appreciate her abilities as a filmmaker. She’s made superb dramas about what it means to be an ambitious woman in the world, like the 2000 Love and basketballThis book is rightly regarded as a classic. It also includes the stunning 2014 meditation about stardom and power. Beyond the Lights. It’s only recently that mainstream audiences have stopped to consider what it means to be a Black woman trying to get a movie made; Prince-Bythewood has been LifeThey have been fighting for their cause for over two decades. It’s fitting that she’s made a movie about literal women warriors, after years of getting the job done and doing it right, while so many people were looking the other way.

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