Friday, September 16, 2022

Review: "THE WOMAN KING" Delivers a Beat Down for Your Viewing Pleasure

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 53 of 2022 (No. 1865) by Leroy Douresseaux

The Woman King (2022)
Running time:  135 minutes (2 hours, 15 minutes)
MPAA – PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some disturbing material, thematic content, brief language and partial nudity
DIRECTOR:  Gina Prince-Bythewood
WRITERS: Dana Stevens; from a story by Dana Stevens and Maria Bello
PRODUCER:  Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Cathy Schulman, and Julius Tennon
CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Polly Morgan (D.o.P.)
EDITOR:  Terilyn A. Shropshire
COMPOSER:  Terrence Blanchard


Starring:  Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Shelia Atim, John Boyega, Jordan Bolger, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Jimmy Odukoya, Masali Baduza, Jayme Lawson, Adrienne Warren, and Chioma Antoinette Umeala

The Woman King is a 2022 epic war film and historical drama from director Gina Prince-Bythewood.  The film is a fictional account of the all-female military regiment, the Agojie, who protected the West African Kingdom of Dahomey during the length of its existence (from approximately 1600 to 1904).  The Woman King focuses on a woman general who must face the ghosts of her past as she leads her all-female band of warriors in a bid to protect their kingdom.

The Woman King opens in 1823 in West Africa in the Kingdom of Dahomey.  The kingdom has a new monarch, the young King Ghezo (John Boyega), who is ambitious and has plans for a better future for Dahomey,which is currently paying tributes to the Oyo Empire.  His kingdom is protected by the female warriors called the “Agojie,” whose notorious and fearsome reputation has led people to call them the “Dahomey Amazons.”

Agojie leader, General Nanisca (Viola Davis), knows that Dahomey is threatened with destruction from Oyo and its allies.  Her enemy is the fearsome Oyo warrior, Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), so she must recruit new warriors to replace the ones who have died in battle.  Among her new recruits is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a stubborn girl who was given away by her father.  Nanisca is running out of time as Dahomey's enemies plot against the kingdom.  Also, the threat of European slave traders means that some of her own warriors could end up in barracoons (cages) before they are carried away as slaves.  Meanwhile, Nanisca must face both a ghost and a demon from her past.

The “Dora Milaje,” the all-female “king's guard” of the Disney/Marvel Studios' film, Black Panther (2018), are based on the Agojie.  Since the Dora Milaje kicked ass in the Marvel film, The Woman King had to depict the Agojie as ass-kickers, and the film does.  The action choreography is quite good – martial arts, historical war epic, and superhero movie good.  The Woman King, in some ways, is similar to films like Braveheart (1995) and Gladiator (2000).  The Woman King manages to be quite the crowd-pleaser by having the female warrior kill their enemies, which includes plenty of white men involved in the slave trade.

I am not surprised that The Woman King reminds me of another Marvel film, last year's Black Widow (2021).  The fight choreography in The Woman King sometimes resembles the techniques used by the character, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow.  Also like Black Widow the film, The Woman King delves into how much it costs the Agojie to be warriors.  Via Nanisca, we see how hard these women work and how much they sacrifice.  As Nanisca, Viola Davis gives her best performance since her Oscar-winning turn in Fences (2016), if not her best performance ever.  Davis' muscular performance makes Nanisca gritty and determined and that defines the rest of the Agojie.  It also defines this film because producers Maria Bello and Cathy Schulman had to show grit and determination as they tried to convince studios to finance this film.

The Woman King also has the distinction of being one of those rare films in which every performance is outstanding – from the largest to the smallest roles, in addition to Viola Davis' superb turn.  John Boyega is surprisingly regal as King Ghezo.  As Nawi, Thuso Mbedu nearly steals this entire film, and as her quasi-paramour, Malik, Jordan Bolger is a light-skinned Mandingo … and his acting is good, too.  Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim fairly leap off the screen as Nanisca's lieutenants, Izogie and Amenza, respectively.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood and her cohorts deliver a film that is an absolute blast.  The mix of historical and alternate history feels uplifting, and it's totally fine for us to cheer and celebrate the battles and who gets killed in them.  Thank you, Maria Bello (who should have been Oscar-nominated for her performance in the film, The Cooler) and Cathy Schulman for getting this started.  Thank you, Viola Davis for leading all these goddesses in one of 2022's best films, The Woman King.

9 of 10
★★★★+ out of 4 stars

Friday, September 16, 2022

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