'The Woman King' review: Viola Davis anchors rousing but occasionally stiff epic
Courtesy of Sony
An old-school studio programmer with a healthy and welcome dose of diversity on screen, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” should hopefully enlighten the dreary box office thanks to its style, suave, and commanding lead performance from surefire heavyweight Viola Davis. Nobody will question the spectacle and rousing cinematic throwdowns constructed for maximum, crowd-pleasing efficiency (and if the audience I screened the film with is any indication, word of mouth should be huge), but “The Woman King” comes up short when the action isn’t front and center, offering little in the way of the honest and intimate character beats a movie like this needs in order to elevate it beyond the scope of the blunt and bloody action sequences. A fresh concept goes a long way in “The Woman King” but the freshness grows stale as the plot meanders and never establishes itself completely.
Still, it’s refreshing to see a mid-sized, studio backed original piece of content heading to theaters that’s headlined by a Black woman. When was the last time that happened? Described as Davis’ “magnum opus,” “The Woman King” tells the story of the Agojie troop, a squad of badass female warriors who fought diligently for the African Dahomey kingdom. Though it never outlines exactly the perimeters of the stakes or gives audiences a genuine sense of the timeline, “The Woman King” is supposedly set in the 19th century, as various armies, empires, and white slave traders are beginning to fizzle in from all sides of the country, forcing general Nanisca (Davis) to reallocate fighters and convince King Ghezo (John Boyega – hamming it up) to stop siphoning off resources and prepare for battle.
To get ready for what lies ahead, the Agojie enlist a batch of displaced recruits, including Nawi (Thuso Mbedu – solid) who was let go by her adoptive parents after refusing to marry a wealthy and abusive aristocrat. She now finds a new family within the Agojie ranks and doesn’t have to abide by the societal and gender norms expected of her, though she will have to prove her worth, and slit some throats along the way. This lays the groundwork for an eventual mentor/mentee relationship between herself and Nanisca, but their bond becomes a giant cliché as “The Woman King” raises the tension.
Prince-Bythewood brings a wealth of knowledge to the movie, having steered “Love and Basketball” and “The Old Guard” into moderate commercial and critical hits. At a budget of only $50 million, she makes “The Woman King” feel bigger in scope than the recent deluge of crummy Marvel entries. The screenplay by Dana Stevens (with a story credit by *checks notes* actor Maria Bello?) could have benefited from more umph in the second half where an awkward love story entangled with Nawi and a slave trader sours the vibe. The entire movie tells us how strong-armed and determined these women are, so it was rather odd that a good chunk of real estate was devoted to this half-baked, chemistry-less diversion. You don’t need no man!
But when it finally gets back to the action (the first ten minutes are exhilarating), “The Woman King” gives audiences a raw and brutal thrashing. Davis rips through the sea of men like the butter they are and though I wouldn’t go as far as to categorize this as her magnum opus, she stands tall among her co-stars Lashana Lynce and Shelia Atim who are both captivating to watch. Hopefully “The Woman King” keeps chipping away at equal representation on screen, but let’s manifest that the next go-around stays a little more grounded and a-lot less cluttered.
THE WOMAN KING opens in theaters Friday, September 16th.