What to Watch Verdict
The Woman King obliterates everything you think you know about period storytelling and depicting Black-centered narratives. This is must-see cinema.
Powerful, award worthy, individual and ensemble performances
Terence Blanchard's soaring score inspires and drives the narrative
A cinematic feast of great scene composition, lighting, costume design and set design
Awkward editing decisions that muddy/disrupt the story pacing
Iffy plot-devices dilute few of the narrative themes
Almost too much story, several story points feel too unresolved
The Woman King, an action-epic set in the 1800s, brings the complicated history of the West African kingdom of Dahomey and its all-female army known as the Agojie, to rousing life.
Opening with a propulsive battle sequence that immediately grounds its story in time and place, director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard, The Secret Life of Bees), introduces the Agojie with fire and commanding presence. If you’ve ever wondered about the inspiration for Black Panther’s Dora Milaje, you won’t after witnessing the fierce majesty of the Agojie.
Starring Viola Davis as General Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie, The Woman King offers a layered narrative. One is of Nanisca's drive to serve her king, protect her people and hold fast to the sisterhood she’s sacrificed and suffered for. Then there is the young King Ghezo (played with riveting charisma by John Boyega) struggling with his kingdom’s involvement in slave trade and a driving need to see his people safe and thriving. Another centers on a rebellious teenage girl, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), offered to the king as a "gift" to join the ranks of the Agojie.
The storylines (and other nuanced story points) come together as the Dahomey find themselves on a collision course with the neighboring Oyo Empire, intent on raiding its settlements of people and other riches. Thankfully, script writers Prince-Bythewood and Dana Stenven turn away from the "David meets Goliath" framing typical of Hollywood approach to African stories. Instead they offer a visually luxuriant story full of heart, humor and vicious battle sequences that pull these women and the kingdom of Dahomey in sharp focus.
The Woman King tackles the complicated history of slavery and Africa by letting the truth drive the plot. There’s no whataboutism here. This is not a victim narrative. The fact that the kingdom of Dahomey, like others on the Continent, participated in the international chattel slave trade is front and center. By serving that information up with honesty while also juxtaposing with a storyline rooted in its dangerously contentious relationship with the Oyo Empire, the movie builds in messaging that steers it firmly away from the sly equivocation of many revisionist takes like Gladiator, 300 or Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.
There’s a creeping sense of impending doom entwined with every joyful display of vibrant life in the kingdom of Dahomey. From the most inconsequential encounter to its kinetic action and moments of sheer brutality, this cast works in perfect concert. It’s impossible to pinpoint any moment that eclipses another because everyone is serving. Davis and Boyega are surrounded by immensely talented women all elevating one another. If you walk out of The Woman King and aren’t ready to campaign for the SAG Best Ensemble trophy, expect to get heavy side-eye.
The Agojie are a tight-knit group of women united in purpose and living situation. Top soldiers in the Royal guard like Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Shiela Atim) live alongside their fellow warriors and new recruits. When each woman pledges herself into the King’s service, each takes an oath of celibacy and to remain child-free. The training is brutal, unrelenting and requires sacrifice.
Nawi enters into this environment intent on proving herself worthy of being in their ranks. Through her part of the story the audience experiences life within the castle gates. It’s a savvy move that offers fertile ground for both harrowing and humorous moments among the women. The varied demonstrations of sisterhood and their fierce commitment to one another and Dahomey is almost an embarrassment of riches that threatens to become unwieldy.
But under Prince-Bythewood’s near flawless direction and savvy use of shifting perspectives this fully-loaded narrative hardly ever derails. She’s ably aided in that endeavor by a score (Terence Blanchard) that works hand-in-glove with the storyline, never permitting that driving tension to drown any of the other emotional flavors key to carrying the individual moments. The score’s such a vital component to the story pacing it almost saves it from a muddy sense time passing and each character’s forward progression.
That oversight might make some audience members’ mileage vary when it comes to the dual narratives. When the storylines merge for the final act, Prince-Bythewood’s commitment to integrating various manifestations of love struggle with one another. But the main storyline works so well it's less a weakness and more indicative of choppy editing. Thankfully, the captivating chemistry between the players and the absolute dedication to taking risks constantly makes up for it. You’ll be hard pressed to walk away feeling less than victorious.
The Woman King engagingly blends fiction and historical fact into a thematically rich deeply nuanced story of coming-of-age, finding your center, then choosing how you’ll stand your ground. The subject matter is complicated, but much to its credit, The Woman King never attempts to make it less so. Before all is said and done, the film subtly delivers the message that without truth there will be no reconciliation, ever.
Throw out everything you think a period film’s supposed to be. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s changing the game for Hollywood action and Black-led dramas. Never accept anything less again.
The Woman King is now playing in US movie theaters; premieres in the UK on October 7. Here's how to watch The Woman King.
Ro is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film/tv critic, writer and host on several of the MTR Network's podcasts. She's a member of the San Diego Film Critics Society and the Online Association of Female Film Critics. She's a former culture columnist for San Diego CityBeat (may it rest in peace) with a serious addiction to genre fiction, horror and documentaries. You can find her sharing movie and book recs and random thoughts, on her podcast I Talk Sh!t and Read or in her newsletter, Shelf Envy.