If you put Hollywood classics like Braveheart and Gladiator in a box, give the story an acceptable twist and then replace the muscular men with all-black female warriors, the end product will come out as something resembling The Woman King. Starring Oscar winner Viola Davis in the titular character, the film takes place in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) and caters to all those viewers who love to watch superbly-choreographed action sequences, as well as a story on the sidelines.
It might not be the finest action flick in the league of the aforementioned historical dramas, but with a dominating all-black cast, it does give the film a perspective that was missing from other such flicks. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, it manages to end up as one of those flicks the audience thought were extinct, and after watching it, they would want more such films. It has everything from action, thrill, suspense, and drama, and although romance features less, it does make its presence felt wherever it could.
The story takes place in the 1820s and revolves around General Nanisca (Viola Davis) who leads the all-female group of warriors aka Agojie which protects the rich King Ghezo (John Boyega) of Dahomey in the West African country. Nanisca and her closest comrades-in-arms namely Amenza (Sheila Atim), and Izogie (Lashana Lynch) are part of the group which rescues abducted Dahomean women from being solved into slavery, inviting the wrath of those who were in the slavery business.
Sensing danger, the King asks Nanisca to find new recruits and induct new blood so that they could have a huge army that would thwart any attack on their country from those supporting slavery. While doing so, Nanisca stumbles upon Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) who impresses her only because she reminds her of her young self. Unknown to her, the two share a connection that complicates matters at first, but they reconcile before the battle begins, against their common enemy. When some of the Agojies including Nawi are captured by a retreating enemy, Nanisca defies the King’s orders and leads her team on a rescue mission, with no hope of return. Does she succeed or does she fail, that’s for the audience to find out but one thing is certain, they will see a lot of well-choreographed action on their way.
The best thing about this film is that it tackles an important subject like slavery and shows the protagonist and her comrades fighting against those who believe in it. Every actor from Viola Davis to Jordan Bolger used the opportunity to play a character that might not have been real but seemed real, and had an important part to play in the abolishment of slavery. The film’s action sequences are so good that you would be compelled to watch them again because one time isn’t enough.
Tackling the tribal way that too from 1823 might have been a difficult task for the director but the way she has presented the era seems accurate and can be taken as a welcome break for the audience who have had enough of watching all-guns-blazing action scenes in films. The scale of the film is quite huge and although it sometimes does remind the audience of Black Panther it manages to carve its own identity thanks to a different storyline and an all-black female cast, who are in control of their own destinies.
The film also manages to fulfil most of the requirements of a blockbuster and shows the audience that one doesn’t have to go overboard to attract the folks at the Academy (Awards!). Viola Davis is simply brilliant throughout the film’s run and dominates the proceedings from the first scene till the very last. The audience is able to connect with her character because unlike her army, she is scarred, and has a past that needs to stay hidden. However, when the time comes to choose between her duty as a soldier and as a human being, she accepts the latter and wins the hearts of her fellow soldiers, as well as the audience.
The film also doesn’t fall short in the department of historical accuracy which usually would either make or break a period film. The production design and costumes by Akin McKenzie and Gersha Phillips respectively are one of the many reasons the audience stays glued to their seats and keeps them mesmerized. Add to that the intelligent direction and the apt editing and you can easily add the word classic to The Woman King for its excellent execution.
Sadly, the film’s main antagonist – General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya) – has nothing much to do, despite being crucial to the plot, and was handled in a matter-of-fact kind of way. The film also takes a lot of time to establish the characters and had that been done intelligently, the runtime would have been less than the eventual 135 minutes. John Boyega of Star Wars fame was cast as the King who rules Dahomey with an iron fist but the actor was wasted in the supporting role. He simply didn’t fit the part and seemed confused as well, which didn’t do the film any favours.
Secondly, after the thrilling opening battle sequence, the film slowed down, and that didn’t sit well with the audience, including this scribe. The director could have easily carried the pace and made the narrative shorter but she failed to do so. The twist that shocks the audience at what would have been an interval moment in a local flick was handled well, but not well enough as the audience lost interest for a moment afterward. Thanks to the action sequences that followed the twist that the film was saved, and the audience got their money’s worth by watching women take on men, and destroy their pride by making them pay for their crimes.
The Verdict 3.5/5
The Woman King has more pluses than minuses and had those minuses like the overuse of visual effects and the unusually dark photography been controlled, it would have done even better at the box office. With a leading lady who commands respect and a storyline that would be discussed for a long time, it has the potential to even become a successful franchise. Stunning action choreography is its strong suit as is the documentary-like realism, and if it is marketed properly, it would go on to do as much business as Black Panther, the only big-budget featuring a dominating all-black cast to rattle the cage known as the box office. -Ends