• Release Date: 14/10/2022
  • Cast: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega
  • Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

“The Woman King” has been in the news ever since its release and it has been for all the wrong reasons. The backlash that the film received has been so intense and vociferous that any and every quality of the cinematic offering was completely undermined. Anyone who has been talking about this film has been primarily focusing on the fact that the film makes heroes out of the “Dahomey” and the “Agojie” when they were actually the villains and committed some of the most inhuman atrocities on African slaves that was ever recorded. The makers of the film and also the ensemble cast have been taken apart by the same critics. They have been sighted as accessories to presenting fabricated and whitewashed “Dahomey” history that would abdicate the perpetrators of all the heinous crimes that they committed against humanity in the eyes of a generation that takes most of its history lessons from films, short videos, YouTube content, and social media apps like WhatsApp, Twitter, and Instagram. With so much already said and done about the politics of the film, I feel it necessary for at least one reviewer to focus on the cinematic qualities of the film putting aside its controversial politics. I looked at the film as nothing more than fiction and tried to understand why I was constantly intrigued and, in the end, disarmed by it.  

The Story: –

General Nanisca (Viola Davis) leads a group of elite woman warriors who form King Ghezu’s (John Boyega) guard in the west African kingdom of “Dahomey” in 1823. Their enemies the “Oyo” kingdom have joined forces with the “Mahi” and raided “Dahomey” villages taking prisoners and selling them to the Europeans as slaves and using the money they earn to buy advanced weapons. They then use these weapons to capture more land and people from their enemy. The “Oyo” plan to march on “Dahomey” and are virtually at their doorsteps. The only thing standing between the “Oyo” and the annihilation of “Dahomey” is the “Agojie”.

Viola Davis as the leader of the “Agojie”: –

I walked into this film to see a group of empowered women deliver poetic justice in the most violent manner possible. This is something that the trailers promised and the film delivers without leaving anything to the imagination. Viola Davis is someone who is known for organically transforming into the characters that she plays. Here she transforms into a fearsome warrior who looks like she means business. One look at her character and you believe that she is someone who could rip out your spinal cord with the head still attached to it in one clean and swift move. This not only makes everything that she does even more fearsome and worthwhile but also adds a lot of power and impact to the scenes where she is shown in a vulnerable state. Nanisca is not only a fierce warrior but is also an extremely troubled soul who has had a terrible past. A past that keeps influencing her decisions and one that she makes peace with in the end. It was wonderful to see the makers infuse enough heart and mind into this aspect of the character when they could have easily stuck with the more entertaining aspects.        

Great performances from the supporting cast: – 

The ensemble cast of the film does a fantastic job. Thuso Mbedu as Nawi is wonderful. She plays a character who is suffering from an identity crisis and is tragically linked to Nanisca. How Nawi’s past influences her present and makes her do things that ultimately make her a hero for Nanisca and her people was beautifully envisioned and executed. The performance of Mbedu was consistently brilliant. I loved her camaraderie with the character of Izogie played by Lashana Lynch as it not only ticked the necessary boxes of the buddy chemistry and quirk that every film of this nature needs to have but also added important details to both the characters and helped the audiences to understand where the two were coming from and why they were the way they were.  

Sheila Atim as Amenza was fearsome. She is a close confidant of Nanisca and the dialogues that the two characters share help us learn a great deal about the character of Nanisca and her torrid past. Atim has the kind of look that not only strikes fear and makes you believe the unbelievable pieces of action that she is shown pulling off but also makes you aspire to be as relentless and inspiring as her. Lashana Lynch as Izogie is a force of nature. She is not only animated and over-the-top but also very likable. She gives out the perfect vibes for the character and renders it in a manner that connects the audience to her actions and thought process.

John Boyega is aptly cast as king Ghezu. He grabs your attention every time he is on screen. Jimmy Odukoya as the primary antagonist is menacing. Every time, Nanisca faced off against him, my heart raced fearing about the things that he could do to her. While he is portrayed as unadulterated evil, there are moments when we get to learn about his limitations and how he is only a man on a mission. This adds to the sense of desperation of the character and increases the odds and impact of it.  

Splendid action sequences: –

This is something that was expected from a film of this nature. However, I was sweetly surprised by the sheer physicality and effort that went into the choreography and the execution of the action sequences. The women not only infused the action with their own respective mannerisms and way around different fighting styles but also brought specificity to their respective action sequences by introducing their styles and mannerisms to the already diverse and interesting fighting techniques. While this might not be strictly speaking close to realism but it does look mighty impressive on the screen. The fact that the action sequences are limited and are always a result of long-brewing buildup or tension that finally forces violence as the only solution left, there is a lot of emotional and dramatic punch behind every blow that the women land. The audiences are made to feel the weight of this drama and the emotional payload through the action. This is what makes the action even more memorable.

Engrossing screenplay and effective direction: –

I was constantly engaged by the screenplay of the film. There were a few moments when the storytelling concentrated too much on the personal dynamics of the characters and the director told us a tad bit too much about the characters than we needed to know but these moments never got too pronounced and the story quickly proceeded to something that brought the gusto back in the narrative. The direction by Gina Prince-Bythewood was consistently brilliant. I loved her work in Netflix’s “The Old Guard”. While this is completely a different film, one can momentarily see some of her deft touches from that film — particularly in the action sequences. I loved her handling of the emotional scenes between the characters and also how wonderfully she was able to extract emotional performances from the ensemble cast without letting them be too watered down and maintaining their respective gusto. Her handling of the action sequences deserves special mention.

Final words: –

“The Woman King” might be a despicable attempt to paint the “Dahomey” in heroic light when in reality they were bloodthirsty monsters. The makers could have easily made a film on some other inspiring African story as there are so many. The people might be absolutely right in their criticism of the film and its decadent politics. However, that doesn’t take away anything from the cinematic offering that this film turns out to be and the qualities that it has in terms of cinematic presentation, direction, performances, etc. I watched this film as a piece of fiction and I feel that everyone should do the same. This will not only save the audiences from believing something that is not true but will also empower them to judge a film on its inherent qualities shunning the politics and whitewashing of real-life villains.  

Rating: 3/5 (3 out of 5 Stars)

Also read | James Bond’s ethnicity might change, but his accent probably won’t

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