Our cinematic cup spills over with Bravehearts and Gladiators and Last Samurai; even lions can be kings on screen. But female warriors, unsurprisingly, have mostly been confined to TV syndication or Themyscira, which feels like a deficit Gina Prince-Bythewood's The Woman King is long overdue to correct. The movie, which premiered last night at the Toronto Film Festival, arrives as the rousing crowd-pleaser it was crafted to be: a spirited and often thrilling action epic elevated by the regal, rigorous commitment of star Viola Davis.
Davis is General Nanisca, leader of the Agojie, an all-female fighting unit in early 19th-century West Africa who lay down their lives — no marriage, no children — to defend the Dahomey empire led by King Ghezo (John Boyega). Some join voluntarily, others are prisoners of war; Nawi (South African actress Thuso Mbedu) lands there because her exasperated father has given up trying to marry her off. If she wants to be defiant, she can go live with the wild ladies behind the palace walls and learn to fight or die trying, but she will no longer be his problem. Instead she becomes an immediate thorn in the side of nearly all her superiors, including Izogie (No Time to Die's Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim), a girl so eager to do things her own way she can't stop rebelling and questioning and disregarding the chain of command.
Ilze Kitshoff/TriStar Pictures Viola Davis wages war against European colonialism in 'The Woman King.'
There's never really any doubt that she'll also make a great warrior, and Prince-Bythewood, who spent years helming intimate, intelligent dramas like Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights before pivoting to the large-scale adrenalized action of the 2020 Charlize Theron Netflix hit The Old Guard, fills her training scenes with lively, stirring pageantry. The Agojie, who actually existed for nearly three centuries, learn knife skills and shooting and how to heal wounds, but they're also a sort of sacred unit, one whose shared purpose is often dazzlingly ritualized in song and dance.
The fighting, when it comes — from both competing tribes and white colonizers steadily advancing an international slave trade — is viscerally satisfying too, even as the screenplay, by Dana Stevens (Fatherhood) and actress Maria Bello, works mostly in the broad strokes of genre storytelling. The Agojie here tend to be universally noble and good and their enemies strictly bad, either brutes or mustache twirlers; an exception is made for Jordan Bolger (Peaky Blinders) as a dashing half-Brazilian invader whose late Dahomey mother has called him back to Africa to find his roots (and to provide the film with a questionably necessary love interest for Nawi).
The women, in fact, are more than enough on their own — though Boyega is excellent as a king smart enough to know the difference between pride and ego — and the movie hinges on the strength of their fierce collective presence. Nanisca's Davis alone gets a deeper backstory, one she imbues with a grace and gravitas not necessarily embedded in the script. (Its handling of the Dahomeys' actual role in perpetuating slavery has already incited heavy debate online; the history conveyed here seems incomplete at best, if not seriously misleading.) For all its gorgeous choreography and costumes, the actual look of the film also lacks a certain richness in the settings and cinematography, a sort of small-screen swords-and-sandals feel. But the movie is swords and sandals, a classic hero's quest; one that just had to wait several lifetimes for the rest of the world to catch up. Grade: B