(director: Gina-Prince Blythewood; screenwriters: Dana Stevens/story by Maria Bellow & Dana Stevens; cinematographer: Polly Morgan; editor: Terilyn A. Shropshire; music: Terence Blanchard; cast: Viola Davis (Nanisca), Thuso Mbedu (Nawi), Lashana Lynch (Izogie), Sheila Atim (Amenza), John Boyega (King Ghezo), Jordan Bolger (Malik), Jimmy Odukoya (Oda), Adrienne Warren (Ode), Hero Fiennes Tiffin (Santo Ferreira); Runtime: 126; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Cathy Schulman, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, Maria Bello; TriStar Pictures; 2022- in English and Portuguese)

“Tells an obscure lesson in African history that needed to be told.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A robust action epic film made on a big budget of $50 million, and with a Black female director and Black cast is something rarely done in Hollywood. It’s a change in Hollywood for the better.

The entertaining film is finely directed by Gina-Prince Blythewood (“Beyond the Lights”/”The Old Guard”), as she mostly makes the right moves bringing out the drama’s emotions. What she misses on is not putting enough action into the middle part (that instead has a superficial romantic subplot contrived in an artificial Hollywood way), but makes up for it with a rousing action-packed finish.

The Woman King is based on the story by the actress Maria Bellow & Dana Stevens, and is written by Stevens–the screenwriter of City of Angels.

A terrific Viola Davis stars as the authoritarian, fierce 19th century General Nanisca, who boldly acts to defend the way of life of Black women with her female army when threatened by other empires or the men in her own kingdom.

The war story is set in 1823. It tells the story of the West African kingdom of Dahomey, which was a real place that existed from the 17th-19th centuries but is now called Benin.

The Agojie are an all-female troop of warriors who fought for the Dahomey kingdom for centuries by going to war against their enemies.

It’s noted the white slaves speak in Portuguese, while all the Blacks speak English.

When the young ambitious polygamist King of Dahomey, Ghezo (John Boyega), interested mostly in power and profiting from the slave trade with the Europeans, is warned by General Nanisca not to trust the European slave traders but tells him to instead sell them our natural resources and not our people as slaves, he unfortunately ignores such sound counsel.

War for Dahomey looms with their old enemy, the larger and stronger neighboring Oyo kingdom, to whom they have paid tribute for decades.

Preparing for the inevitable battle, the Agojie train more women soldiers, including the angry Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a natural warrior who refuses to be shackled by a repressed society that sides with forced marriages. Under her male warrior mentor Izogie (Lashana Lynch, whose acting is brilliant) she is transformed into a true warrior.

The mainstream popcorn film with a heart is inspired by films such as Braveheart, and is well-made and performed. Only too many digital shots at the climax battle scene take some power away from that visceral scene, and I believe it could have gone into more detail over the kingdom’s slave trade.

But The Woman King tells with a bluntness the remarkable story of the Agojie, the all-female Black unit of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 19th century with
its fighting skills (like their fantastic sword play) unlike anything the world has ever seen. It’s effective as a visual pic, one showing how strong Black women can be as a fighting force when they fight for what they believe in.

The film is inspired by true events, and tells an obscure lesson in African history that needed to be told.

It played at the Toronto Film Festival.