The Woman King makes for a somewhat puzzling artifact when it comes to reconciling fact and fiction. For a film with plenty of brutal action that pushes the boundaries of the PG-13 rating, it’s oddly sanitized, even based on a cursory Google search. It follows the West African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1820s during a time of heavy strife. The film is an ensemble piece, but Viola Davis’ Nanisca, the leader of the all-female warrior unit of the Agojie, stands out as the ostensible lead. Her main drive is to convince King Ghezo (John Boyega) to stop selling other Africans to European slavers. In reality, the story was much more complicated, and Ghezo was much less amenable to entertaining the idea. So this doesn’t alter the quality of the film, but learning how it really went down simply feels puzzling and tends to hang over the film.
Again, though, it doesn’t necessarily hamper the quality of the film. In fact, the most compelling aspect of the movie is the tension between Nanisca and Ghezo. It shouldn’t take much, if any, convincing to make you side with Nanisca on this, so there is good tension from the jump. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood quickly places you in the time period with a Star Wars-esque opening crawl and narration. And from there, we’re off. There are the existential threats of warring kingdoms and imperialists, and there are personal stakes of a young girl, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) navigating her place in a patriarchal world where she’s to be married off to a rich man, and the Agojie bringing in and training new recruits. The mileage varies pretty heavily with which plot lines work.
The film is at its best when it has its broader themes on its mind. It’s the motivation behind the somewhat infrequent battle sequences and tense political showdowns. It lets Davis bring her now trademark gravitas and intensity, and the ways she adjusts how she uses them depending on the scene is no longer surprising, but it’s still a wonder to behold. There isn’t a lot to her character at first beyond a drive to keep her people free, and while that’s a more-than-solid baseline, it’s not quite enough to go off in a movie that’s well over two hours long. It does help you get invested in and grapple with the idea of Africans selling other Africans, though, and it’s a dark part of history that’s certainly worth a look through the blockbuster lens.
But while the movie does so well in making its broad strokes beautiful, it’s when it gets into the nitty gritty of character moments that it trips up. The writers realized there needed to be more to Nanisca, but in doing so, they introduced a subplot that seems to think it’s a main plot. Questions of parentage, and an ill-advised love story are introduced during the second act, and they simply introduce pacing issues into a film that was already struggling to find its footing. It works best as a sort of twist on Seven Samurai, where slow progress is being made in the lead-up to the big final showdown, but these jumbled character moments get in the way.
It’s a shame, too, because Mbedu shows some real promise in her scenes training in the ways of the Agojie. For a movie that stars Davis, Boyega, and Lashana Lynch, I was surprised to see the relative newcomer at the center of the story. It became a theme, but her performance and scenes worked the best when they were in service of the story of the army, and not in the awkward, shoehorned subplots.
As with so much of this movie, these extra subplots are just baffling, because there are character moments that really work during the extended time we see the Agojie training. Moments between Davis, Mbedu, Lynch, and Sheila Atim slowly compound until you realize you care deeply about each of these characters and are heavily invested in their relationships. Lynch is the true standout. Outside the MCU and 007 machines, she’s able to use her action prowess and intensity to bring unique characterization to her character, Izogie. She perfectly embodies one of my favorite character archetypes — that of a fiercely fiendish warrior with a soft side.
The Woman King really does ultimately stumble thanks to ill-advised subplots. There is so much good in here, and it had the chance to be a genuinely great revisionist historical epic had it cut about 20 minutes of runtime. Love stories and parental drama aren’t even fluff in this instance — they’re warts that stay around too long. Thankfully, it doesn’t hamper the overall message that the film is going for. Like the Agojie, The Woman King’s main ideas are too strong and relentless to be stopped.