The Viola Davis “is there nothing she can’t do?” list gets a bit longer with The Woman King, an action epic with issues it wants to address, but first it wants to show us Davis, oiled up and charging into battle as the warrior commander of a deadly elite troupe of female African soldiers in West Africa in the 18th century.
That shock – impressive, entirely believeable – out of the way, the film settles down to tell the story of Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a feisty young woman reluctant to marry whose father “gives” her instead to the king. She ends up as one of the Agojie, the deadly female force of Dahomey, a slaver state that sells its captives to the Europeans for transportation to the Indies and beyond.
A training montage sequence almost inevitably follows, during which Nawi will prove herself to be a fighter with a rebellious untameable spirit, an aspect of her nature that exasperates but secretly impresses Nanisca (Davis), the feared and respected general who might, one day, become the “woman king” and take the throne alongside “man king” Ghezo (John Boyega).
But first – invaders to be fought off, in the shape of an enemy general Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), alliances to be forged with the likes of fellow soldier Izogie (Lashana Lynch), European slavers to be encountered, like the Portuguese Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tintin) and a possible suitor to be yayed or nayed – Malik (Jordan Bolger) is the handsome mixed race result of his mother’s forced abdcution.
In a parallel universe somewhere, black-centric Hollywood movies with a female-centric story would be lying thick on the ground and The Woman King wouldn’t feel it necessary to bog itself down examining its own specialness – because it wouldn’t be special. It could instead be what it wants to be, a rollicking actioner full of wit and dash.
Instead Nanisca has to pause in her warrior duties to make speeches that validate women and Africans, abhor slavery and insist the region could be rich instead on the trade of palm oil, every one of these pronouncements dragging The Woman King further towards the realm of the massive 1950s widescreen epic, when men in togas would sit around declaiming, explicating and generally boring audiences to death.
What a great cast. Not a bad performance. Mbedu holds up well against the big hitters. Davis is 100 per cent what she ought to be (she’s the same age as Liam Neeson was when he started in the Taken films, so why not), Lynch is mobile and funny, John Boyega a commanding, wise and beneficent king, and Jimmy Odukoya – a Nollywood graduate with something like 28 IMDb credits in the last two years alone – is a standout as the badass rapscallion general and representative of the patriarchy.
The need to give Boyega enough to say to justify his presence unbalances the film a bit, though it’s Terence Blanchard’s vampy score that most gives the game away – so often the sound of wheels spinning while one or other key character gets something off their chest. Though he comes into his own in the battle scenes, when the chanting of the massed female warriors stirs the blood.
Cinematographer Polly Morgan takes her visual cues from the rich, red soil of Africa (it’s South Africa, though we’re meant to be in West Africa), shooting everything gorgeously rich and deeply saturated.
It’s hard to imagine it having been made without the success of Black Panther and it’s good that it has been made, even though, really, it’s a missed opportunity to make a glorious and thrilling actioner pure and simple.
That’s when it’s at its best, in the fight scenes, when director Gina Prince-Bythewood shows she can translate the impressive fight choreography to the screen, and we see Nanisca and her fellow warriors glistening in the dark and deadlier than the male. More of that, less chat.
The Woman King – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022