Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new film, the historical epic “The Woman King,” tells the story of the Agojie, the Dahomey Kingdom’s all-female clan of warriors. The film stars Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim and John Boyega.
First off, “The Woman King” succeeds in its epic goals. The set design and direction create a large sense of scale, with multiple set piece action scenes in a variety of kingdoms and locations. Never once does the film feel small, which is quite impressive considering its relatively small budget for a historical epic ($50 million). The action is impeccably choreographed, with an intensity and viscerality that few films are able to accomplish.
One of the main reasons why this film is successful is because of its cast. For one, Davis yet again gives an incredible performance. Davis is a certified movie star, bringing to life a complex character and leading the way in “The Woman King.”
The breakout of this movie however is Mbedu. In what is her first feature film role, Mbedu is the co-lead of the film, stealing the show from Davis in many parts. Before “The Woman King,” Mbedu was best known for starring in the miniseries “The Underground Railroad.” I can say with certainty that this is the start of a major film career for Mbedu, she is definitely one to watch out for in the next few years.
Lashana Lynch is also great in this movie, adding another hit performance to her resume. She is one of the best parts of 2019’s “Captain Marvel”, 2021’s “No Time to Die” and “The Woman King” is no different. In each of these films, Lynch steals scenes from some of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Lynch has proved yet again that she deserves a leading role in a film of her own.
While “The Woman King” is great in these respects, there are some problems with its plotting and pacing. The story is fairly simple — the film surrounds Dahomey’s conflict with its rivals and the dynamics between Agojie members. However, the film is also burdened with subplots that have very little to do with the advancement of this overall storyline. Some of these subplots are better than others, but they largely falter in their execution.
These subplots also mess with the pacing and tonal consistency of the picture. “The Woman King” clocks out at 2 hours and 15 minutes; it could easily be a half hour shorter. The plot advances at a fairly slow pace (though that isn’t necessarily abnormal for the historical epic genre) but lacks a rhythm between scenes. Instead of feeling like a cohesive story, much of the film plays out in an overtly sequential manner, jumping from moment to moment with little connectivity. This causes problems when we bounce from romantic scenes, to one that surrounds guilt, to a high adrenaline action scene. This tonal inconsistency does not destroy the picture, but it makes certain sequences less effective.
Ultimately, however, the overarching story is quite satisfying. While there are problems with rhythm and pacing, the film’s conclusion makes it all worthwhile, wrapping everything up in a rewarding way.
Before we conclude this review (hopefully in a way as satisfying as this film’s conclusion) it is important to discuss the discourse surrounding this film. Before its release, “The Woman King” was criticized by some online as being a distortion of history. These critics said that portraying the Dahomey and Agojie as heroes was inaccurate, as the Dahomey Kingdom participated and profited off the slave trade.
This criticism is not necessarily inaccurate, but it is problematic in two ways.
One, these critics said these things before seeing the film. The film itself actually covers this aspect of the Dahomey Kingdom, having an entire scene devoted to discussing their profiting off the slave trade. Additionally, the root of the film surrounds violence against slavers, which is about as anti-slavery as you can get.
Two, “The Woman King” is the wrong film to be targeting. “The Woman King” is not 100% historically accurate, but neither are most historical films. In fact, there are many historical films that endorse figures that were racist and actual slavers — 2017’s “The Greatest Showman” for one. Those films did not receive the same criticism as “The Woman King” even though their figures and historical distortion are far more controversial. “The Greatest Showman” never once addresses P.T. Barnum’s racism or slave-owning ways, while “The Woman King” does mention the Dahomey Kingdom’s complex relationship with the slave trade. Additionally, there are very, very few Black female majority cast films made in Hollywood. There are also very few historical epics made that center around African kingdoms. The effect that a majority Black female-led historical epic has for representation on the silver screen is far greater than the effect of its historical distortion. Simply said, “The Woman King” is not the right film to be targeting for historical distortion.
But I digress.
Though it has flaws, “The Woman King” is an enjoyable film, with great performances, well-choreographed action sequences and a satisfying conclusion. For those reasons, the film earns a moderately strong recommendation.