“The Woman King” (Rated T)
Cast: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashan Lynch, John Boyega, Sheila Atim
Genre: Historical Drama/Action
Where to watch: In theaters
Leave them all at the door!
All of your biases, preconceived notions, dislikes of “movies like this”, fears of being made uncomfortable, fears of this story being too revisionist, too feminist, too racist, too whatever!
Yeah! All of that – just stop!
But you say you dislike the name? What does that name even mean? The liberal agenda at work again, right?
Save the excuses! “The Woman King” – and the name is explained – is a very well-made historical drama, with something for almost everyone.
It tells the rarely told story of the Agojie, the all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey during the 17th to 19th centuries. Set in the 1820s, the film stars Viola Davis as a general who trains the next generation of warriors to fight their enemies.
These ladies did indeed exist, and Europeans who had the often-unfortunate experience of encountering them called them “Amazons” – much like the warrior women in Greek mythology (a la “Wonder Woman”).
Now, there’s no doubt that this, at its heart, is some tough subject matter. The trans-Atlantic slave trade is very sensitive material. And there are growing movements afoot to adjust narratives to spread the blame around and pin slavery on Africans as much as Europeans.
“The Woman King” does acknowledge the involvement of groups like the Dahomey and addresses it. And while some will likely feel it doesn’t delve far enough into this, the fact that it’s being mentioned at all in a new film is great progress. Clearly, there are still many fascinating stories to be told.
In any event, the way “The Woman King” goes about its business approaches near masterpiece levels – at least for an action movie. It actually takes the best from a number of genres. Most comic book superhero flicks could only wish audiences would bond with and recognize the distinct personalities of each and every character in this manner.
And most other action films or thrillers rarely elicit visceral or emotional responses, other than when audiences recoil from scenes of gore.
Viola Davis as an action star! Who knew? Is there anything she can’t do?
Here, she’s simply perfect. There’s nothing more to say.
The rest of the cast is also superb. Lashana Lynch, the British actress, last seen as the new 007 replacing the retired James Bond in “No Time to Die”, lights up the screen in every scene in which she appears. A true delight!
The same can be said of Ugandan-British actress Sheila Atim, whose character is a rational and calming voice of reason from beginning to end, all while still being a fierce warrior.
There are men in the movie too. John Boyega (the “Star Wars” sequel trilogy) as the Dahomey King, and Nigerian Actor Jimmy Odukoya as the main villain, do fine jobs. But they definitely take a back seat to these fantastic women.
Arguably, the real standout, and the film’s best and most memorable performance, belongs to South African actress Thuso Mbedu (Amazon Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad”) as Nawi.
One has to be quite special to hold your own against Oscar and Emmy and (two-time) Tony winner Viola Davis as a co-lead star, and manage to shine and excel. Mbedu is a joy to watch, with an enthusiastic and inspiring star turn here. She and Davis make for a truly dynamic duo.
What the movie doesn’t tell you is that someone named Nawi is believed to have been the very last survivor of the Agojie Dahomey warriors. Who knows? Could there be more tales to tell in the future?
If Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball” and “The Old Guard”) and screenwriters Dana Stevens and actress Maria Bello (“A History of Violence” and TV’s “NCIS”) are involved again, it will likely be another wonderful mix of history, fantasy and effective creative license.
So, don’t dismiss “The Woman King” as some sort of “female” “Black Panther” knockoff – as I did when I saw the first previews months ago. That would be a real disservice to one of the most satisfying films of the year, so far.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.