'The Woman King' Gives Its Characters the Royal Treatment

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, John Boyega, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim.

Photo: Ilze Kitshoff

BY Sarah Jessica Rintjema Published Sep 16, 2022

Loosely based on the the Agojie, an all-female warrior army who guarded the West African kingdom of Dahomey roughly between the 17th and 19th centuries, The Woman King follows Nanisca (Viola Davis), the head of the Agojie, as she trains new recruits including the stubborn Nawi (Thuso Mbedu). She also competes for the ear of King Ghezo (John Boyega) while facing some deeply buried trauma, all in service of protecting her kingdom.

Unlike the all-too-common, typically lazy "girl power" tropes found in your average blockbuster, director Gina Prince-Bythewood not only respects her female characters, but also cares for them as complex and flawed people, nurtures their bonds with one another, and places their right to their individual agency above all else.

Prince-Bythewood's depiction of the all-woman army doesn't care about reinforcing the warriors' femininity, and doesn't value her female characters' abilities to be sexually desirable. This Black, female army is made up of rounded human beings who worked for, built, and now command unflinching respect from the citizens of their kingdom through relentless perseverance and badass battles — even if the movie's portrayal of these heroic events is more fantasy than fiction.

At times The Woman King's action scenes feel overproduced, potentially Marvel-esque, and there are a handful of shaky accents by some actors — which, when looking at the months of preparation, training, and sheer amount of abs forged in dedication to the movie, seems forgivable.

Besides a list of incredible performances and transformative set design, what makes The Woman King stand out from other mainstream Hollywood films is the portrayal of Africa and its people — a culture and community rife with tragedy at the hands of colonizers, yes, but one also rich with family, love and laughter. The Woman King is, at times, an emotionally heavy watch, but one that strays away from trauma porn, and instead provides everything all at once: abuse, love, loss, family, violence, feminism, thirst traps and Viola Davis.

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