“The Woman King”, headlined by Academy Award winner Viola Davis, premiered in US theaters on Sep. 16. The film is inspired by true events and histories of the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the early 19th century. Controversy regarding historical inaccuracies aside, “The Woman King” is a refreshing and original historical epic that showcases Black women in a light not often shone in cinema.
Davis plays Nanisca, leader of the prolific group of Dahomey warrior women — the Agojie. Throughout the film, Davis fights alongside co-stars Lashana Lynch and Thuso Mbedu, who portray Agojie warriors Izogie and Nawi, respectively. Between battles and training bouts, Nanisca takes on a tender mentorship role with Nawi, an incredibly young yet aspirational woman.
Despite receiving moderate box-office success and generally positive critical reviews, “The Woman King” certainly has its flaws. Perhaps most glaring is the fact that the film is marketed as a historical epic despite its quieter character moments dictating the most impactful scenes of the movie.
Understandably, the film’s creators wanted to pay homage to the historical Agojie by crafting an exciting, heroic narrative. With that said, “The Woman King” often feels stunted in its epic nature — somehow simultaneously, the fight scenes fall flat and the characters feel hollow. The film could have been better had it favored either its characters or its plot, instead of leaving both somewhat mired in the runtime.
There is still, of course, much to love. The vibrancy of Dahomey culture is palpable in its landscapes, colors, fashion and music. The cinematographers and set design teams deserve some recognition for their work. The acting is great too — Viola Davis delivers a performance of the caliber movie-goers have come to expect from her; Lynch’s charisma provides the film with some much needed levity; John Boyega’s portrayal of King Ghezo is extremely solid, if a bit subdued; but the real standout performance of the film belongs to breakout star Thuso Mbedu. Mbedu’s portrayal of Nawi perfectly encapsulates the ambition, naivety and vulnerability of a nineteen-year-old warrior.
In writing on the film’s merit, it would admittedly be negligible of a reviewer not to mention the impact of films such as “The Woman King” on disenfranchised and marginalized communities. There exists an unequivocal significance in diversity and representation in cinema. Viola Davis, in a recent podcast interview with popular radio show “The Breakfast Club,” spoke of the importance of representation in film. She states that as a Black producer and actor, “You have to fight for the budget. You have to fight … for everything, even hair and makeup, okay, because there’s no precedent.” Precedent for representation ought to be established. We’ve had our fill of cinematic stories detailing white, male, heterosexual struggles. Looking past the objective quality of its runtime, cinema is a better and more representatively diverse stage thanks to “The Woman King.”