'The Woman King' an epic that puts women in the middle of the action

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)

When actress Maria Bello visited the West African nation of Benin in 2015, she learned the history of the Agojie, an all-female military regiment from the Kingdom of Dahomey (and the inspiration for Wakanda’s Dora Milaje from “Black Panther”). Recognizing the cinematic potential for this story, she developed the project with producer Cathy Schulman, and landed “The Old Guard” director Gina Prince-Bythewood as director, as well as the formidable, Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis as star.

The result is “The Woman King,” an epic, inspiring and beautifully made historical action film that puts women in the middle of the battle for Dahomey circa 1823. Some “text-position” lets us know that Dahomey is at war with the Oyo Empire, whose horse-riding, gun-toting warriors led by General Oba Ade (Nollywood star Jimmy Odukoya) collaborate with European slavers, kidnapping fellow Africans to be sold at auction.

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But the Oyo, and their allies the Mahi, are stymied in their efforts by the fierce and powerful Agojie, led by Nanisca (Davis), a career warrior who leads her highly trained and regimented soldiers in bloody attacks to free prisoners destined for slave ships on the coast. The fight scenes are easily the highlight of “The Woman King,” the clean and brutal fight choreography expertly shot by cinematographer Polly Morgan and edited by Terilyn A. Shropshire.

The violence enacted by these women warriors is delightfully graceful and inventive: the way the ferocious Izogie (the magnetic Lashana Lynch) wields a handful of carefully sharpened fingernails, or young warrior Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) utilizes her rope in battle is clever, resourceful and uniquely feminine, but make no mistake, it is bone-crunchingly vicious and devastatingly effective too. This isn’t just the first time we’ve seen Black women do battle on this scale — it’s the first time we’ve seen women, en masse, engaged in the kind of realistic and gritty violence that marks historical action epics.

Viola Davis stars in "The Woman King." The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

The script, by Dana Stevens and Bello, while at times a bit pat, and flat, carefully balances each element of the story. Dahomey’s conflict with the Oyo Empire, and the larger existential threat of slavery looms against the interpersonal interactions and intimate storylines among the women of the Agojie. Nanisca is a leader fueled by her past traumas and personal demons, which come to the fore when she comes face-to-face with the psychopathic Oba, and when she takes on a group of new recruits to train, including the headstrong and defiant Nawi.

John Boyega plays Dahomey’s young king, Ghezo, a benevolent if somewhat pretty boy leader who takes on soft diplomacy while deploying his Agojie to collect the heads of his enemies. He wrestles with how Dahomey can prosper while the trade of the day is in human life, caught between Nanisca, who urges an industrial shift to palm oil, while tempted by the riches of white trader Santo (Hero Fiennes Tiffin).

But the heart of “The Woman King” is not in the conflict among its men. Davis holds the center, and “The Underground Railroad” star Mbedu easily meets her. It is a star-making performance for the young South African actress, and the scenes between her and Davis give the film its emotional weight. Lynch brings the heat as the powerful Izogie, while Sheila Atim’s Amenza embodies the friendship and guidance provided by the Agojie sisterhood.

The score, by Terence Blanchard, ties it all together, and provides ample opportunity for song and dance, both as expressions of joy and sisterhood and as a part of the Agojie’s preparations for war. At the center, the true general, Prince-Bythewood, marshals every aspect of “The Woman King” in concert, conducting action, thrills and emotion beautifully. It is a remarkable, powerful film, and not to be missed.

‘THE WOMAN KING’

(In English and Portuguese with English subtitles)

3.5 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing material, thematic content, brief language and partial nudity)

Running time: 2:15

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