Lashana Lynch could decapitate me and I would thank her.
“The Woman King” tells the story of the Agojie, a group of women soldiers (led by Viola Davis) who protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and John Boyega also star as Gina Prince-Bythewood directs.
I’m a big fan of historical films, and war is my second favorite version of that genre (after gangster pics). There aren’t too many mainstream depictions of African warfare, so “The Woman King” presented a unique chance to look into a period of time and at a group of people not normally seen on the big screen. The finished product may leave more to be desired, but solid performances and some decent PG-13 action make this a fun time at the movies.
It can be argued that Viola Davis has never had a true star vehicle (her Oscar win and blockbuster appearances are supporting roles), so “The Woman King” marks the first time her name is atop the billing block and her presence is featured in near every scene. As to be expected, Davis turns in a solid performance, though some of her story beats do feel a bit inorganic and distract from the story rather than add to it (that’s the fault of Dana Stevens and Maria Bello’s script, not her).
Lashana Lynch, playing one of Davis’ right-hand women, offers some lighter comedic moments while also remaining intimidating, including gouging out the eyes of enemies with her sharpened nails. And John Boyega, in a somewhat limited role, is always welcome.
Despite being PG-13, the film manages to include several graphic deaths (throats are slashed, arms are broken, and the aforementioned eyes are gouged out) and show a bit of blood. All-too-often in PG-13 films the edits are quick and choppy and the camera is far too close to the subjects, resulting in audiences struggling to make out what is happening on-screen. While I felt the overall look of the film was fairly generic and uninspired (a lot of bland color choices and stationary angles), I appreciate Prince-Bythewood and her cinematographer Polly Morgan giving us some sprawling battle scenes.
The film runs 135 minutes, and there are times that things simply meander about. In fact it takes a while before momentum truly picks up and we get any real conflict, as the first half of the film is dedicated to training new Agojie recruits. The other thing is while watching you can just sense something about the story is “off.” In the film, Boyega’s King Ghezo is pressured by Davis’ General Nanisca to end the trade of captured enemies into slavery, a thought he agrees with, and it’s shown the Europeans as the driving force behind the continued slave trade. Historically, the British had begun their abolition of slavery in the early/mid 1800s and tried to force African nations, including Ghezo’s Dahomey, to do the same (and were met with resistance). You would never know this from watching the film, and while it does not inherently affect the quality of the film, it does make it feel a bit hallow and in hindsight makes you lose a bit of respect for the filmmakers for not being willing to tell the story of a strong group of female warriors with complete honesty.
“The Woman King” has lots of fun and engaging moments sprinkled throughout, and it gives a handful of women chances to turn in solid performances. With better direction or a tighter script it could have been something special, but instead opts for being another “fine enough” historical war flick.
Critics Rating: 6/10