Sometimes it’s the movies that are almost great, but only good, that break your heart the most.
That is the case with The woman kingGina Prince-Bythewood’s action-packed historical epic set in the early 1820s in the West African kingdom of Dahomey (today part of Benin). It’s a film designed to inspire audiences and provoke cheers, and overall it succeeds. But there are undeniable and frequent moments of blurry disconnection, a square-pin-in-round-hole sensation in which this studio-released photo quickly jumps from the details of the stark reality of the world’s worst long-lasting atrocity – the trans- Atlantic slave trade – ready to beat poison. Rarely does a movie contain a traumatic rape scene one minute and a killer parkour the next.
But it is a pessimist who lingers on disappointment; optimists focus on what works. It’s probably no surprise that the performances here are all top notch. Viola Davis plays General Nanisca, head of the elite female warrior squad known as the Agojie (or “Dahomey Amazons” as they were called by Europeans), in a perfect marriage of actor and character. Sheila Atim and Lashana Lynch are as spectacular as her top lieutenants, Amenza and Izogie. However, 31 year old Thuso Mbedu is the real find as the co-lead in the picture 19 year old Nawi, who refuses to be married off so joins the Agojie and functions as our eyes and ears in this new world .
The Agojie serve King Ghezo, John Boyega, whose understated demeanor gives every raised eyebrow a well-deserved laugh. It’s not Boyega’s movie and he knows it, but when he plays, he’s great. The Dahomey clash with another tribe, the Oyo, but both are caught up in an inherited cycle of darkness initiated by the European slave trade. Ghezo holds his head in relative justice: He stopped Dahomey’s sale of their own people to the whites, and only sells their enemies. Nanisca is the visionary who sees that this too must stop and has an economic plan.
It’s a serious and uncomfortable subject, and much of it is treated with respectable honesty. But this is also a studio shot, PG-13 that is, so it has to be sold to all four quadrants. The cross-generational implications of slavery quickly align with a ridiculous Twilight Saga-esque love story between Nawi and Malik (Jordan Bolger), a ridiculously muscular visitor from Brazil whose mother was Dahomey and whose father was Portuguese, who apparently went for a ride with his slave buddy played by mustache-twisting hero Fiennes Tiffin.
Other story points bring something with them Days of our lives things about lost children and a confrontation between Viola Davis and the head of the Oyo army that tortured her years ago. There is a significant amount of tonal whiplash between shots of young Nawi using a short sword to break necks.
In the end, the really great performances and effective fight scenes deliver the suspense. (The MPAA rating keeps it that way, much less gory than a typical Sunday night on HBO.) There’s a hollow feel to the ending, unfortunately. The Agojie were very very realbut the Hollywood-of-it-all creates a “yay, we just ended slavery” vibe, which historically hasn’t really been the case. Schindler’s List, another film that tries to evade an atrocity too big to ever fully comprehend, ends with a glimmer of light, but is more realistic with its “uh, now what?” last moments. The woman kingThe objectives are different.
Again, there is a lot that works in The woman king. Most notable is the overall look of this film, a production designed to rebuke colonial views of Africa, the “dark continent.” The architecture of the king’s palace is lavishly designed, brimming with color and intricate decorative elements. Rarely do you watch a movie and think “great lighting!” but Prince-Bythewood and cinematographer Polly Morgan deserved it here. Also the costumes (from Star Trek: Discovery alum Gersha Phillips) are extraordinary, weaving fierce looks with fiercer weapons. Why would Lashana Lynch want a gun when she can file her fingernails into instruments of death? The woman kingThe training scenes are happier than most war photos (think Stripes instead of Full metal jacket) and some scenes “at court” (especially with the king’s eunuch majordomo) have a nice Game of Thrones quality.
Prince Bythewood, whose Beyond the lights is one of the most overlooked films of the past decade, has created a vision of historic Africa never seen in a mainstream American film. She deserves a crown for that alone.