A historical epic inspired by true events that took place in The Kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most powerful states of Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries.
‘The Woman King’ is a historical epic about an all-female army that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey (present day Benin) from the 17th to 19th centuries. It has been billed as a ‘black, female led ‘Braveheart’’, with its focus squarely on the warrier unit of the Agojie, a rare example of a female army. It’s a story that I suspect most viewers will no little about (I certainly didn’t), and it has the perfect outline for a thrilling historical action movie. Starring Viola Davis in the leading role as the Agojie leader, it features a predominantly black cast with almost all of the main roles filled by woman.
The story primarily focuses on an upcoming war between the Dahomey people and the Oyo Empire, who have been abducting Dahomean women and selling them to European slavers. Under the instructions of King Ghezo (John Boyega), the Agojie prepare a battle strategy designed to catch the Oyo army by surprise, relying on them underestimating this hardy group of female warriors. Despite this promising outline, I felt ‘The Woman King’ really struggled to do anything fresh or original with the genre, besides transporting a by the numbers historical epic into a time period and setting that audiences are not likely to be familiar with. It runs through just about every cliché in the book and by the time it revealed a key piece of information relating to Nawi’s (Thuso Mbedu) parentage, I just rolled my eyes.
Part of its issues stem from how long it takes to get going, with much of the first half of the film spent listening to poor dialogue as the filmmakers attempt to immerse the audience into the Dahomey culture. It is aided by decent fight scenes when they come, and some convincingly strong performances from Mbedu, Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim in particular. Viola Davis is a formidable actress and she is a compelling screen presence, but even she can’t escape from the fact she’s a nearly 60 year old woman who we’re supposed to believe is capable of battling fit and strong armies of men half our age – the Agojie were clearly incredible, but I doubt they had 57 year olds leading them into battle.
‘The Woman King’ is a breakthrough for representation and it demonstrates that there is an audience for black and female led action movies, but I just wish the script and the pacing were stronger to match the undoubted enthusiasm that has gone into the movie’s production.
Directed By: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Jordan Bolger, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Adrienne Warren, Jayme Lawson, Masali Baduza and Jimmy Odukoya