Oscar buzz doesn’t typically happen with action movies, but The Woman King (now on VOD streaming services like Amazon Prime Video) is the exception. The primary subject of said chatter is star Viola Davis, who seems like a lock for her fifth nomination for playing the general of an all-female army in West Africa. The film is notable for being director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s follow-up to 2020 Netflix hit The Old Guard, grossing a tidy $91 million at the worldwide box office and being based on the real-life Dahomey Agojie. Considering its well-considered blend of historical dramatic fiction and violent clashes, it’s easy to see why it enjoys such critical and popular acclaim.
THE WOMAN KING: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: In early-19th century West Africa, humans are the most valuable currency. Women from the Kingdom of Dahomey are locked in cages guarded by men of the Oyo Empire – men who stand no chance against an ambush by the Dahomey Agojie, led by the fearless Nanisca (Davis). The women hack through the men with machetes and gouge at their eyes with clawlike fingernails, but this being nighttime, we’re still firmly in the extreme end of a PG-13. The Agojie are greeted with reverence when they return home. They live on the king’s palace grounds, decorated with the heads of their enemies on pikes. They mean business.
Nawi (Thuso Mbedu of The Underground Railroad) experiences the way of the Agojie firsthand. She refuses to let her father marry her off to a cruel, graying man, so she gets deposited at the palace gates, soon to be assimilated into the new Agojie recruits. Nanisca asserts their warrior code: They will not marry. They will bear no children. They will be revered, paid for their service and heard. “We fight or we die,” Nanisca barks. “Fighting is not magic. It is a skill.” Nawi fits right in – “I will be the hunter, not prey,” she says. The recruits line up. They learn to fight with blades, spears, their fists, their strength, their momentum. They oil their bodies so their opponents will struggle to grapple with them. Harsh lessons will be learned. They will earn their scars, and own them.
And they have their work cut out for them. The Oyo Empire is vast, its army far outnumbering Dahomey’s. But King Ghezo (John Boyega), advised by Nanisca, declares war; their people will be stolen and sold into slavery no more. Skilled veteran warrior Izogie (Lashana Lynch) helps Nawi fit in with the Agojie. Nanisca has a nightmare, and is comforted by her closest confidant, the mystic warrior Amenza (Sheila Atim). Slave traders Santo Ferriera (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) and his cohort Malik (Jordan Bolger), whose mother was from Dahomey, and who might not be a terrible person at heart, arrive on the shore to do business with Oyo general Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya). The two men size up the Agojie: “They’re the bloodiest bitches in Africa,” Ferriera says. Well, he ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The Woman King takes the historical-epic visual ambition and we’re-outnumbered-so-what plotting of manly stuff like Braveheart and 300 and gives it a fresh, femme, sometimes Wonder Womanly point-of-view. (The Old Guard did similar things to the formula of superhero movies.)
Performance Worth Watching: Davis, of course. She makes sure Nanisca is a complex character with complex emotions, fearsome but also wounded. Davis is the master of command presence. You know – who do your eyes go to first on the screen, and where do they stay? On Davis. That’s command presence. She also delivers a but-it-is-not-this-day/they-can-take-our-lives-but-they-can’t-take-our-freedom pre-battle speech that would liquify Mel Gibson.
Memorable Dialogue: Nanisca ponders an attack strategy: “Sometimes, a termite can take down an elephant.”
And a line best left decontextualized: “Your nuts were finally right.”
Sex and Skin: Just the scene in which Nawi comes upon a freshly bathed and meticulously waxed Bolger, covering up his naughty bits.
Our Take: For all its formulaic plotting and pedestrian dialogue, The Woman King is fresh in every other way: Its visual palette, its setting and art direction, its voice and perspective. It’s as beautiful to look at as it is tonally fierce – as it is predictable. But that’s OK, because where the Nawi character feels like rote girl-of-destiny fodder, Davis’ characterization of Nanisca is rich and fascinating, a melange of wounded weariness, inescapable melancholy and righteous confidence. Davis transcends a soapy twist by making it flat-out operatic.
Crucially, Prince-Bythewood and screenwriter Dana Stevens (Coyote Ugly and A History of Violence actress Maria Bello has a story credit) don’t build build build just to the big third-act battle; that’d be a waste of Davis’ impeccable skill, a skill that assures the film concludes on a complex note, a moment of beauty with a weary, long-aching aftertaste. This, Davis infers without a word, is the life of a warrior.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Woman King wins the representation battle – and it sure doesn’t hurt to have a badass Viola Davis in your corner.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
The post Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Woman King’ on VOD, a Historical Drama/Battle Epic Made Richer by Viola Davis appeared first on Decider.