Reviewed by Paul Gibbs
Let’s start with what should be obvious: If you’re the type of person who uses “woke” as a pejorative and thinks civilization is on its way out because the the Little Mermaid is Black, The Woman King wasn’t made for you. You’re wasting your time even reading this review. And if your complaint is that they’ve sacrificed historical accuracy for “wokeness”, it has to be pointed out that a large number of the previous historically based adventure epics this one invokes (Braveheart being an obvious example) sacrifice historical accuracy to be more macho and right-wing. So t’s hypocritical to throw this one under the busy for inaccuracy unless you do the same for those.
Now, for everyone else, how much you enjoy and appreciate The Woman King will largely depend on what you want out of it. If a rousing, often moving and empowering feminist and anti-racist take on historical adventure epics like Braveheart and Gladiator with a lot less blood and guts sounds good to you, you’re in luck. While The Woman King follows nearly all of the tropes of the genre, even that comes off as empowering in a way, as it helps demonstrate that Viola Davis can do anything Mel Gibson or Russell Crowe can. Davis stars as Nanisca, a general of the Agojie, an elite force of female warriors who defend the Kingdom of Dahomey, a state in Africa which existed from the 1600s to 1904 (and who likely are at least partial inspiration for Black Panther‘s Dora Milaje.). When an enemy tribe aligns with Spanish slave traders and threatens Dahomey, the new King (John Boyega) calls upon the Agojie. Sharing lead actress status with Davis is Thuso Mbedu as Nawi, who is forced to join when her adoptive father becomes angry with her independence and gives her to the King to join his army.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard, The Secret Life of Bees) had to work with a smaller budget (at least when inflation is taken into account) than Braveheart or Gladiator, which is likely a big part of why this film features fewer sweeping crane shots and other elements of visual flair. But Prince-Bythewood certainly knows how to tell a compelling story, and to create gorgeous imagery with cinematographer Polly Morgan. And mot of all, she and her cast of excellent actresses succeed in making us care about the characters. For me the standouts were Davis, Mbedu and Lashanna Lynch (the new 007 in No Time to Die.). Davis is terrific throughout, but the developments in the final third of the film allow her to take it to another level, and she absolutely delivers another in her long line of Oscar worthy performances.
History is definitely subjected to Hollywoodization here, and there is plenty to quibble about with the way it tries to deal with some sensitive issues, such as some African tribes complicity in the transatlantic slave trade. But at least Prince-Bythewood and screenwriter Dana Stevens try to address those issues, instead of taking easy outs like so many other historical epics have. It took me some time to sort out how I felt about some of this, and there are aspects I’m still thinking about. While it will take more time for me to decide if this is a film for the ages, there’s no question it’s a film for our time, and worthy of both audience and awards attention. I give The Woman King an enthusiastic recommendation to most audiences, with the exceptions being for those too young to handle the refreshingly PG-13 level battle sequences (I’ve seen enough fake blood and heads littering movie fields at this point) and the kinds of people I mentioned in the first paragraph.