Friday Film Review--"The Woman King"
I bow to the throne of The Woman King and its star Viola Davis and director, Gina Prince-Blythewood. It topped the box office last weekend when it opened, and critics have called it a masterpiece. I would have to agree. It gripped my heart from the first suspenseful frame in what will become one of the most talked about and remembered battle scenes in cinematic history.
The initial battle and central conflict are between Agojie women warriors who hail from the West African kingdom of Dahomey and the Oyo tribe which is trying to overtake them because they want to control the port for the slave trade.
The film relies on some historical fact with fictional drama to create this blockbuster. In a controversial plot of the film, Africans are trading their own people to Europeans to be used as slaves. This is what drives Nanisca (Viola Davis) to fight like hell. She wants that to end. The women fight all men in this initial battle and free the captured Africans about to be traded. They use their grit, strength, agility, and brains. It’s exhilarating. The power of these warrior women is palpable, with Nanisca as their leader. She emerges from the bush, ripped biceps that gleam in the night, with the ferocity of a lioness.
Nanisca is the strongest of the Agojie warriors, but has a weakness that any woman could understand. I won’t spoil the reveal here, but it’s a driving sub plot where Davis’ character faces some mystery demons until suddenly, they’re not so mysterious. I found this story line compelling and believable. And it gives Davis’ character something for her to sink her acting chops into and for the audience to witness her raw vulnerability, always her best work.
The other complete and utter surprise in this film is the rising star of the movie’s defiant teenager, Nawi played by Thuso Mbedu. She’s offered up to the young King Ghezo (John Boyega) as a gift because her father is unable to marry her off to potential suitors – who look at her like property and are abusive. She never makes it to the King. She’s snatched up by the phenomenal Lashana Lynch who plays the fun yet powerful Izogie, who enlists her into the army of Agojie warriors.
To counterbalance the savagery, time spent in the village is peaceful with women taking care of one another as sisters. The set design is perfection and colorful with traditional African songs and dances performed by the women warriors. There’s palace intrigue, a forbidden love story between Nawi and Malik, played by Jordan Bolger, who is half Portuguese and Dahomen, returning to discover his roots.
This film was a courageous effort. Maria Bello, actress turned screenwriter and producer, who discovered the story in 2015 and helped craft the script with writer Dana Stevens, was up against a Hollywood machine that was just beginning to come to terms with racial equality in films. To pitch a story that takes place in 19th Century Africa with an all-female, black cast must have had its challenges. But they didn’t give up. Tenacity and faith is what gave us this wonderful film. I applaud Bello and co-producer Cathy Schulman for not giving up. It was the first film of its kind, and it won’t the last.