‘The Woman King’ Is Anchored By Oscar-Worthy Performances – Review
It took six years to bring one of the most highly anticipated movies to life, The Woman King! Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Old Guard) and Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis teamed up to make one of my favorite movies of the year (thus far).
The story focuses on Nanisca (Davis), the general of the Agojie under King Ghezo (John Boyega). As she has earned respect and trust of the king, Nanisca attempts to show Ghezo that the Dahomey must no longer participate in the slave trade and that they must never again sell their war captives to slavers.
The transatlantic slave trade was instrumental for the Kingdom of Dahomey’s economy. The Woman King does not shy away from that by showing the history of their participation in selling slaves. Davis and Boyega’s characters share some heavy scenes exploring that. Although this aspect of the Dahomey is not the film’s sole focus, I hope it inspires people to learn more about the Agojie warriors and the Dahomey.
One of the things I love about this movie is the focus on Nanisca leading the warriors while also giving us a compelling story arc with Nawi (Thuso Mbedu). When we first meet Nawi, she’s a young woman who refuses to accept a husband after several attempts to be married off by her father, Moru (Julius Tennon). Her father then gives her to the King, leading her to train to become an Agojie. Interweaving both stories allowed the writers to create an exciting coming-of-age storyline for a PG-13 audience crowd pleaser.
Davis is one of the greatest actresses of this generation. Across all her films, she can capture the life and essence of any roles she takes. Her role in The Woman King is no different. Davis delivers one of her best performances to date, and it wouldn’t surprise me if her portrayal of Nanisca led to another best actress nomination during the award season.
Coming off her fantastic work in Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad, Thuso Mbedu held her own while sharing scenes with Davis and other prominent cast members. Working opposite Davis is no small task, so I was highly impressed with Mbedu’s ability to shine and bring so much heart to the story. Along with the script and directing, Mbedu made for a fantastic protagonist the entire audience would root for as the story progressed. Mbedu’s name should certainly be among the conversation for any supporting actress award nominations. Her performance was that good!
Mbedu also shares some heartfelt and powerful scenes with Lashana Lynch, who plays a brave and loyal warrior named Izogie, whose primary task is training Nawi and the other recruits. Lynch’s performance is moving and captivating from start to finish. Whenever Lynch is on the screen, you can’t help but be locked in and focused because you don’t want to miss anything she says or does. Lynch’s portrayal of Izogie is the actress’s most robust performance.
Sheila Atim gives an incredible and enduring performance as Amenza. The right-hand warrior to Nanisca, Amenza counsels Nanisca through her most difficult choices. Atim’s moments with Davis bring some of the more gut-wrenching and impactful moments in the movie, giving Atim the perfect opportunity to shine in her role.
Prince-Bythewood is no stranger to filming fight scenes, especially with her previous work with The Old Guard. Combining that with the work from fight coordinator Filip Ciprian Florian gave audiences glorious and riveting action sequences that help push the story forward rather than just being pointless action. It was refreshing to see a large-scale battle with a practical fight versus the CGI-heavy superhero battles we are now so accustomed to seeing.
Thanks to the compelling story and build-up, when the action does take place, you end up on the edge of your seat, rooting for the warriors to succeed. You could also tell how hard the cast trained to make the scenes feel real and gritty. While watching it, I quickly felt like I was a part of the scenes. I found myself wanting to yell out, “Watch out! Duck, he’s behind you!” Prince-Bythewood did a great job of keeping the balance of having intense combat without being too gory or graphic.
Watching so many beautiful Black women fighting in sync and taking down their adversaries was incredibly powerful, especially on the big screen. It is not something that is seen often, but hopefully, The Woman King is a step forward in seeing more Black women-led films playing in theaters throughout the world.
Davis called this her magnum opus, precisely what this film is. In addition, I believe it is also the best film that Prince-Bythewood’s directed. With intense action, political discussions, and inspiring characters, I see plenty of awards season chatter for Prince-Bythewood, the cast and crew of the film. The Woman King is one of the year’s best films!