For more than two decades, filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood has been carving out a career for herself that continues to flourish in an environment that has been historically hostile to women and POC filmmakers, of which she is both. Her commitment to telling black stories with passion and depth have led to excellent efforts like Beyond the Lights and the era-defining Love and Basketball, which demonstrated a care and patience that allowed her intimate, performance-driven films to take flight. More recently, Bythewood has shifted toward a more action-dominated output, to mixed results. The Old Guard, the Charlize Theron-starring Netflix actioner, was a somewhat limp, grey effort that demonstrated a filmmaker still learning the ropes as a director trying out a new direction.
An old-fashioned historical epic in the vein of Braveheart or Gladiator, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s muscular The Woman King excels in finding fresh perspectives on a well-used worn, particularly in its diverse setting and a cast that puts a range of black actresses aT the forefront.
With The Woman King, easily the biggest film Prince-Bythewood has yet made, these two different aspects of her career blend in fascinating and deeply satisfying ways. Evoking the lamentably lost heyday of the swords-and-sandals epics that delivered sprawling, bombastic efforts like Gladiator, Troy and Kingdom of Heaven, the film tells the story of the Agojie, the all-female unit of formidable warriors who led the legions of the Dahomey, an African empire in the time of slavery and colonialism. The film focuses on the head of this unit, General Nanisca (Viola Davis), a taciturn leader, muscle-bound and world weary from a life of combat and survival. Her and her legion must face both political scheming from within the kingdom and the persistent threat of the Oyo, a rival empire in league with Portuguese slavers.
The film is commendably focussed, and delivers a tight, well-executed narrative that feels largely free of bloat, uncommon for titles within this genre. There are subplots, most notably newbie recruit Nawi (The Underground Railroad’s Thuso Mbedu, excellent), as she joins the Agojie and discovers she has an untold link to the legion. Other notable players include John Boyega as the king of the Dahomey Empire Gheza, a figure of endearing suaveness and a willingness to cede the spotlight; and Lashanna Lynch as Izogie, Nanisca’s second in command – a vicious warrior who also happens to be the most animated and consistently funny character in the film. If there’s going to be an Oscar campaign for a performance in The Woman King, Lynch will be it.
Indeed, the entire ensemble is delivering career-best work, up to and including Davis, who is rightfully celebrated as an actress and yet still somehow not celebrated enough. Here she holds the screen with a subdued gravity, deep reservoirs of pain manifesting both on her skin and in the wells of sorrow that live in her gaze. Here, Prince-Bythewood reminds us of her roots as a dramatist – it achieves both the big, broad emotions of the sword-and-sandal subgenre and a more subtle, intimate rumination on family, duty and womanhood that sets the film apart from its peers. Prince-Bythewood still has a ways to go as an action director – there are a number of capable and assured combat sequences here that nevertheless feel lacking in terms of the kinds of standout moments of heroism that make the genre sing. Long, combat-free periods of the film suggest that Prince-Bythewood is far more interested in her characters’ emotional conflicts than their physical ones – not necessarily a bad thing but one that too often makes the fight scenes feel like an afterthought.
Throughout, The Woman King ruminates meaningfully on feminism and blackness, as well as the lingering spectre of slavery, in a way that feels natural to the stroy rather than grafted on as some shallow symbol of inclusion that signifies little. The film is not without its complex grey areas – notably, Lupita Nyong’o was slated to appear in the film before dropping out, around the time that the Dahomey’s history as slavers as ruthless and complicit as their rivals at the time became more broadly known. Film history has no shortage of historical revisionism, oftentimes particularly in providing a rose-tinted perspective on white characters in conflicts against indigenous people of colour. While your mileage on The Woman King will likely vary depending on how you feel about a film that presents the Dahomey in a way that is less-than-truthful, within this larger context, it’s difficult to dismiss it outright, so naturally inclined is the film to representing important modern issues in such a deft and moving way.
The Woman King is out now in cinemas.
The Woman King
Movie title: The Woman King (Prince-Bythewood, 2022)
Movie description: An old-fashioned historical epic in the vein of Braveheart or Gladiator, Gina Prince-Bythewood's muscular The Woman King excels in finding fresh perspectives on a well-used worn, particularly in its diverse setting and a cast that puts a range of black actresses at the forefront.
Date published: October 27, 2022
Country: United States
Author: Dana Stevens, Maria Bello
Director(s): Gina Pryce-Bythewood
Actor(s): Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, John Boyega
Genre: Action, Drama, History