The Woman King ★★★½

The Woman King tells the story of a tumultuous time in the West African kingdom of Dahomey. King Ghezo (John Boyega) has recently come to power through a coup, assisted by slave traders. He envisions change for his kingdom, a tributary to the Oyo Empire. He wishes for independence, and seeks to stop the Dahomey from being sold as slaves in the Atlantic slave trade.

Central to his ambitions are the Agojie, women warriors who protect his kingdom. Led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis), these women are disciplined and courageous, their strength reinforced by their unity in fighting. In Dahomey, young women enter the walls of the kingdom where they learn how to fight. They master fighting with ropes, knives, swords, and even rifles, though rifles are limited in number. They are unparalleled in hand-to-hand combat, which we quickly see in the opening sequence of The Woman King, and quick to neutralize any differences in military strength through wit and strategy in combat.

Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) is a young Dahomey woman. Her father has unsuccessfully attempted to present her to a husband for marriage. He realizes the futility in marrying Nawi when she does not wish to be married, and sends her to the King to be trained as an Agojie. When Nawi enters the walls of the kingdom, she is fascinated by the women warriors she sees training and quickly finds strength and solidarity with them. Despite her youth, Nawi excels in combat and pain tolerance exercises, winning a competition and earning the notice of the King. Nawi is chosen by General Nanisca to participate in an act of defiance against the Oyo and even saves General Nanisca’s life. Despite the General’s military prowess, she is weary of violence and her perspective is one that is respected by the King. Continuous violence with no end serves no purpose, and only serves to weaken a kingdom. But when the Oyo seek to crush the Dahomey and are in cahoots with the slave traders, resistance must occur or the slave traders will continue to exploit the African empires from within.

Through The Woman King, director Gina Prince-Bythewood tells a nuanced story that satisfies both the narrative beats of an epic and of a character-driven drama. Battle scenes drive forward both story and character arcs with impressive flourish. Seen in a theater, audiences have much to cheer for, and there’s even a few laughs to be had in the women’s banter and camaraderie.

It should come as no surprise that Viola Davis is a tour de force in The Woman King, and Thuso Mbedu delivers a breakout performance opposite of Davis. With credits including The Underground Railroad and now The Woman King, Mbedu has established herself as an actress to keep an eye on.

Supplementing these actresses’ performances is a strong supporting cast and production crew. Makeup and costume design in The Woman King stand out, and an understated soundtrack from Love & Basketball collaborator Terence Blanchard help to immerse us within the kingdom of Dahomey and in the challenges the Agojie overcame. Seven years in the making, The Woman King is a blockbuster in the purest sense of the word and deserves to be rewarded for its merits.

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