Let’s talk about The Woman King.
A big topic over the last few years has been diversity in film. For the longest time, Hollywood movies were all led by white people, and for the most part white men. Eventually, we did see more women and minorities leading movies, but again that was a very small number and often in smaller budget movies. Hollywood’s excuse wasn’t outright racism, more a quieter version that believed people wouldn’t buy tickets to a movie led by anything other than a white man. They have now been proven wrong, Chadwick Boseman’s legacy will always be this, and this has led to a lot more movies being produced with different leads and settings. The Woman King is an example of this, a hefty budget behind a film with a majority black woman cast. It’s great for diversity in Hollywood but is it a great movie?
The Dahomey kingdom are under threat from invasion of the much bigger and better armed Oyo empire. However, the Dahomey kingdom have the Agojie, an army of women who have sworn off men and dedicated themselves to being the most fierce warriors in Africa.
Let’s start off with the obvious. Viola Davis is incredible. Yes I know, this is never worth saying because it’s always the case. She was the best part of the original Suicide Squad movie, though that doesn’t take much, and is consistently one of the most underrated actors working today. So it was pretty obvious she was going to be brilliant in this. But it is awesome to see her combine the usual dramatic performance where she combines a woman’s pain, love for her kingdom and a sheer determination to be the greatest warrior possible with being a bit of an action star. This is not the sort of role a 50+ woman used to get and it’s great to see one now exist and Davis kicks it. Dramatic scene? Brilliant. Action scene? Brilliant. Viola Davis is just a queen in real life, never mind in film.
What is amusing that even though we are in Africa in the 1800s, a place not usually explored in movies, we still get the same story being told. While Viola Davis’s Nanisca is on all the posters and represents the title of the movie, the real main character is Nawi. She’s a young Nahomey woman who is given to Agojie because she refuses to be sold to a husband and is essentially our POV character. We enter the world alongside her so it becomes very convenient for characters to give exposition for her. But it’s not that which is very familiar, though I suppose it is. It’s that this movie despite it’s unique setting, follows so many young solder gets enlisted tropes. Nawi is a bright young thing who doesn’t obey all the rules, but despite that her cleverness actually works in her favour and gains the respect of her superiors, though they constantly rebuke her. I didn’t expect this movie to closely resemble the first part of Captain America: The First Avenger but it does exactly that. This is a bit of a problem the film delves into from time to time as I think because it looks so different from every other film, the film feels comfortable falling into old tropes.
But while I criticise use of those old tropes, I have to say this movie executes them well. And it the action is really good as well. It’s not fair to limit this movie as an action flick because it has a lot more depth than your usual run and shooter. But when you can look forward to the fighting scenes, that does make the film a whole lot better. They are suitably brutal and crucially, they make the Agojie look like incredible badasses. It’s one thing being told how awesome they are by pretty much every character in the film, but it’s another to see them beat up men that are two times their size. Occasionally, there are a few more edits in the scenes than I would like, but overall they are pretty great.
And I love seeing something so different on my screen. There have been a lot of arguments about whether diversity is being forced and the word woke gets thrown a lot but I don’t care. I want as many different stories in my cinema as possible for the simple reason of it makes things so much more interesting. If we go back to the 1800s and we show what was going on in the UK, it’s just another Victorian period piece. Here, we see a completely different setting which looks stunning on the big screen, an entirely different culture which has barely been put in movies before and characters that informed in unique ways. I love this. Yes, I’ve mentioned because of the different setting, the film looks to get away with a few tried tropes. But honestly, I kind of forgive most of them because of that. Please Hollywood, give me more films set in places I’ve not really seen before because it makes the bad so much easier to swallow.
I do have to mention the controversy the film has going on. In the movie, the Dahomey kingdom sells captured soldiers into the Western slave trade, but Nanisca does eventually persuade the King to change trades and stop literally selling their people down the river. In real life, the Dahomey kingdom only briefly stopped selling slaves and when they found palm oil, which is its own problem, wasn’t as lucrative, they went back to selling people again. This has caused problems because this film does make the Dahomey out to be brilliant anti-slavers when in fact, they were not. There’s not much more I can say because I’m woefully unequipped to discuss this further, but as I know some people do not want to watch for these historical inaccuracies. I do understand that by the way, though I tried to keep it out of my judgment.
The Woman King is a great movie. It is completely made by Viola Davis in one of the least surprising great leading performances of the year. It is aided by a very good supporting cast, I never really got the chance to say how Lashana Lynch boosts her star power in this film as well, and the action makes the Agojie look like the greatest warriors ever, which is the point. Of course, the film is not perfect. Despite the unique setting, the film has plenty of familiar tropes and even a pointless love interest that adds nothing. There’s also the potentially offensive historical inaccuracies. But despite that, The Woman King is a fantastic experience which there is very little like in the cinema right now.