‘The Woman King’ Film Review: Viola Davis Rules in Fresh and Meaningful Action Film

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film feels like an oft-told tale, but with a unique contemplation of strength and weakness

“The Woman King” was reviewed by TheWrap out of the Toronto International Film Festival.

At first pass, “The Woman King” recalls those classic Disney animated fables. Though inspired by real-life warriors who guarded the Kingdom of Dahomey in 19th-century West Africa, the film hits many familiar notes: Ancient mythical land! Palace intrigue! Rebellious orphan! Tough-love mentors! Coming of age! Prince charming! Wicked villain! Good vs. evil showdown! It’s just that here, the tropes aren’t metaphors at all and the story isn’t an allegory. 

In the Sony Pictures release, Oscar winner Viola Davis stars as General Nanisca, commander of the Agojie, an all-female army, and adviser to the young King Ghezo (John Boyega), who has recently ascended to the throne. The kingdom has been at war with the Oyo Empire, which routinely kidnaps Dahomey’s people and auctions them off to slave traders. Ghezo is himself complicit in this human trafficking, though Nanisca tries to steer him toward palm oil production as a sustainable alternative for enriching the kingdom. 

Meanwhile, the adoptive father of teenage Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) offers her to the Agojie after a botched attempt to marry her off for money. Although much preferring the warrior life, she’s headstrong and doesn’t take orders well. Thankfully, Lieutenant Izogie (Lashana Lynch) takes Nawi under her wing and keeps the youngster in check. Nawi’s trajectory has many parallels with that of Hua Mulan. For instance, there are mirroring montages of a field of cadets practicing swordplay in synchronicity in a courtyard. And the novice-thrives-under-tutelage narrative is such a cliché by now that the animated “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hand” lampooned it just recently. Obviously, Mulan had to cross-dress to blend in with the dudes, while Nawi is among what could be characterized as an entire army of Mulans. 

The reliance on tropes in “The Woman King” extends beyond the Disney variety. The film frames the rivalry between Dahomey and Oyo as a battle of the sexes, while Nanisca’s personal vendetta against Oyo’s General Oba (Jimmy Odukoya) plays out like a survivor’s revenge fantasy. Some of these scenes skirt dangerously close to daytime soap territory, with Nawi being an orphan and Nanisca having given up her child in the past.  

While Dahomey’s plotting against the Brazilian slave traders seems like an anomaly for Hollywood productions, “The Woman King” unluckily arrives on the heels of the Tollywood crossover hit “RRR,” which highlighted a comparable struggle of Indians against their British colonizers. Though the depiction in “RRR” may feel like an affront to those accustomed to the baked-in unconscious bias prevalent in Western entertainment, it serves to lessen any shock value “The Woman King” might have.

While Dana Stevens’ screenplay works despite that air of contrivance, the cast deserves at least part of the credit for committing to African accents and selling those lines — though African characters speaking in accented English is an odd choice given that the Brazilian characters speak in Portuguese (with subtitles in English). When the Brazilians do speak in English, the film presents that as them making an effort to communicate with the Africans.  

One unique aspect of “The Woman King” is its contemplation of strength and weakness. Though the Agojie are as tough as nails in battle, they can also be vulnerable. Nanisca earns respect for her fighting prowess, but she is haunted by her past trauma from sexual assaults and experiences panic attacks. The film communicates that true strength perhaps isn’t sheer brute force, but the resolve to cope with and power through inner demons. It’s a tremendously poetic and moving message, and one that well justifies the film’s existence. Davis truly gets to flex the full range of her acting chops. A performance of this caliber is rare in what’s essentially an action flick. 

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood has always presented Black characters thoughtfully, and “The Woman King” is no exception. In the hands of a less deft and sensitive filmmaker, it could have easily succumbed to cringeworthy ethnography. To be sure, production designer Akin McKenzie, costume designer Gersha Phillips, choreographers Eugene Khomanani Baloyi and Zoyi Lindiwe Muendane and many others have painstakingly helped build this immersive world. But Prince-Bythewood always puts the characters’ travails first and allows us to empathize with them. 

Terence Blanchard’s orchestral score and Polly Morgan’s cinematography give the film an epiclike sweeping feel. The fight scenes are big, bombastic, and often brutal. Again, “RRR” has set the bar impossibly high in that department, but “The Woman King” holds up well. The battle scenes are an enormous undertaking for fight coordinator Daniel Hernandez and the stunt performers, who execute them with the same rigor and attention to detail even when in the background or out of focus.  

“The Woman King” possesses broad appeal. It’s an oft-told tale, yes, but here imparted with a fresh angle and a meaningful moral. And it has something in store for those who prefer the action genre, too. It’s not at all surprising that Prince-Bythewood has made yet another crowd pleaser. But the challenge remains the same, which is for marketing and advertising to figure out how to connect it with different demographics. 

“The Woman King” opens Friday, Sept. 16, in U.S. theaters nationwide.