The Woman King

Review by Lila Funge

In the West African kingdom of Dohemy, 1823, we find ourselves thrust into the world of the Agojie – real life Amazonian warriors. These women, led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), are highly skilled warriors trained to defend their homeland against rival tribes and slavers. The Woman King (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2022) follows the next generation of Agojie as they train to follow in these womens’ footsteps while preparing for battle. This is not only a tale of life on the battlefield, but on the battlefield of a woman’s body as well. Oscillating between a sweeping, bloodthirsty epic and an intimate study of female trauma, The Woman King goes beyond a summer action film and dives into something much deeper. If left in the wrong hands these tonal shifts could cause viewers emotional whiplash, however Prince-Bythewood does so with the ease only a seasoned director possesses. 

While Viola Davis gives a knockout performance (shocker) it is the film’s supporting star Thuso Mbedu who steals the show. Mbedu plays Nawi, a young girl given to the Agojie after her refusal to marry an abusive older man. From the start she has the fighting spirit of the Agojie but her stubbornness lands her in trouble with General Nanisca time and time again. The interactions between Nanisca and Nawi are perfectly contrasted by Nawi’s relationship with Izogie (Lashana Lynch). The two bounce off each other naturally, as if they’ve known each other forever. Their banter feels natural and their emotions are raw. In a film full of heightened tensions, the comedic relationship between them is a welcomed breath of fresh air. This duo is the thread that ties to the two tones of the film together. Without their relationship, I highly doubt The Woman King would feel as seamless as it does. 

This film is not without its flaws, and one is glaringly obvious; it’s another movie about slavery. Obviously this is not all the film is about, but it is a driving plot device. There’s serious catharsis that comes with watching these women slaughter slavers, but another film depicting Black trauma is maybe not the escapist cinema most people are looking for. Since the film already takes creative liberties with regards to historical accuracy, focusing solely on tribal disputes rather than slavers may have worked in their favour. 

Thrilling, gut-wrenching, and endlessly entertaining, The Woman King is a battle cry for women past and present. If you can stomach heavy subject matter, this film is a must-see-in-cinemas triumph for Gina Prince-Bythewood.

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