Film Review: The Woman King overcomes any conventionality with its fierce female spirit

Black is beautiful, and never has it felt more apt a saying than when viewing Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s stunning historical actioner The Woman King.

Inspired by true events, The Woman King centres itself around an all-female unit of warriors known as Agojie, who protected the African kingdom of Dahomey during the 17th to 19th centuries; the film itself set in the 1820’s.  Leading the charge is General Nanisca (Viola Davis, effortlessly powerful), her stern, intimidating ways strongly influencing the King’s ear – Ghezo (John Boyega) – as she inspires him to take on their enemies who threaten their way of life.

Ruling with an iron fist – the Dahomey people are instructed not to look at the Agojie as a sign of respect – Nanisca and her right-hands, Amenza (Sheila Atim, stunning) and Izogie (Lashana Lynch, a stand-out), prepare their next generation of warriors as the Oyo Empire continue to abduct the Dahomey women; Thuso Mbedu‘s oft-rule defying Nawi, surging as the film’s secondary focus to Nanisca, emerging as the newest recruit after being forced into Agojie by her father as punishment for rejecting all her suitors.

The Woman King has earned some criticism over its historical accuracy and the African slave trade connection linked to Dahomey – areas that I don’t feel comfortable or have any place in commenting on – so it’s perhaps easier to note that the “based on true events” tag is best taken loosely.  The story, one surprisingly conceived by actress Maria Bello, still proves a refreshing addition to the pantheon of historical epics that Hollywood has produced over the years, thanks to its predominant black, female cast and a mentality that favours victory over enslavement.

Though the film’s script, penned by Dana Stevens, whose credits vary from the polarising Bond outing The World is Not Enough to the schmaltz of Nicholas Sparks’ Safe Haven, doesn’t always serve the characters the depth they deserve – Nanisca’s back story is one that feels a little cliched and convenient; Nawi’s romantic inclination with a Portuguese slave trader feels as if it wants humanise the enemy; and the playful interactions between the Agojie women never go beyond surface level exploration – the actors on hand are never at fault; Davis continues her ease at claiming the finest living actor title throughout, even when battling conventional dialogue.

Where the film refuses to falter though is in its battle sequences.  Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard) crafts exciting and, most importantly, traditionally-inclined action set-pieces that should thrill any genre enthusiast, with each character imbued with a certain style that differentiates them from one another, adding a level of unpredictability to each violent moment; that being said, for a film with such a violent spirit, it’s remarkably bloodless – no doubt a studio ploy to appeal to a larger audience market by not limiting the age restricted to view.

And though Davis is as commanding as expected, Mbedu makes for a lasting impression, and Atim proves rousing to watch at every turn, it’s Lynch that emerges as The Woman King‘s most stirring presence.  Every line delivery and cutting act of physicality comes with a mixture of ruthlessness and emotionality that allows her Izogie to leap off the page.  Her 007 stint in No Time To Die informed us of her action sensibilities, and The Woman King further confirms her status as the genre’s most exciting new player.

Whilst its running time is perhaps a little too indulgent with how much it decides to recycle certain conversations or thematics, and this isn’t the historical epic it could have been, The Woman King is nonetheless a wholly exciting feature that overcomes any conventionality with its fierce female spirit, and that’s more than enough to warrant a passionate celebration.


The Woman King is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.