Movie Review: THE WOMAN KING

THE WOMAN KING, starring Viola Davis in the title role, is beautifully filmed and well-acted from start to finish. Written and directed by Dana Stevens and Gina Prince-Bythewood, the movie takes place in 1823 in the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Ms. Davis plays General Nanisca, leader of an all-female group of warriors, the Agojie, who comprise the core of the story. In her influential role, Nanisca eventually persuades the Dahomey king, Ghezo, to forego participating in the slave trade with Europeans, including Portugese merchants. To follow through with this, King Ghezo prepares for war against the Oyo empire, a larger neighboring kingdom that has long been involved in trading enemy captives, such as Dahomey people, to slavers.

The movie’s primary focus is on Nanisca and Nawi (played by South African actress Thuso Mbedu), a strong-willed young woman who joins the Agojie after defying her father by refusing to marry men who would physically abuse her. She is befriended by a veteran warrior, Izogie (Lashana Lynch, a costar in 2019’s CAPTAIN MARVEL), who becomes like a mentor to Nawi. We viewers witness the young woman evolve into a mighty warrior while navigating an initially fraught relationship with General Nanisca.

Handsome Jordan Bolger plays the half Dahomey and half Caucasian (Portugese) Malik, a man involved with slave traders allied to the Oyo. Nawi first meets him in the jungle as he walks naked out of the water, having just bathed. She grabs his clothes right before they engage in conversation. This scene is filmed from the refreshing lens/perspective of the female gaze, where an attractive man is rendered vulnerable and an object of curiosity and desire by a leading female character, who remains clothed. He wears a metal cross around his neck, which Nawi looks at with curiosity. Malik offers the necklace to her but she drops it at his feet when she runs off upon hearing his companions approaching. The implications are rich in this scene, such as Nawi’s leaving Christian symbolism behind and returning to her home without seeming influenced by this Western religion and its values.

John Boyega as King Ghezo is, well, lovely. He stands tall, handsome, and stately, having come into his own in this role after playing the comparatively child-like Finn in three STAR WARS franchise sequels from 2015 to 2019. For a good while, I couldn’t figure out where I’d seen this actor before. He is so different here, transformed. Impressive.

I was fascinated with a certain supporting character who we see and hear from now and then throughout the movie, but never get to truly know. He is a feminine, cross dressing, probably gay man (and/or maybe a eunuch?), always gorgeously dressed and graceful in movements, who has some kind of attendant (go between?) role with King Ghezo and his wives. After looking up the cast on assorted sites, such as imdb, Wikipedia, and Google, I could not clearly match a name up for either the character or actor who plays him (except, possibly, “Ajahe” for the character). Anyway, his androgynous presence had me thinking of what are called “Two Spirits” in certain Native American tribes, gay and lesbian people that are not gender binary conforming but are given important, respected positions in their society. I found myself wishing for some brief exposition as to his role and presence close to the king and his wives, including his primary wife. That was a loose end in the narrative that left me feeling like the lovely, queer man was made to seem mainly decorative and mysterious even though, clearly, his presence was substantive and relevant. Ah, well.

Without giving anything away, I will say that we the audience are led to hope for a certain outcome between some characters. But, to the writer’s and director’s credit, this movie does not completely fall into formulaic, predictable plot patterns. And to the extent that it does, I found this acceptable and satisfying. The narrative moves along with a balanced mix of character development and intense action.

The portrayal of the Dahomey here glosses over historically just how steeped they were in enslaving people within their own kingdom. Apparently, they also committed human sacrifice, which is not shown or mentioned in this production. The movie is mostly fictionalized, albeit inspired by true events.

The landscape scenery is exquisite in places, the building sets of the Dahomey kingdom’s capital city beautiful in their mix of clean lines and solid earth tones. The costumes of the Dahomey and Oyo are all elegantly worn by people each stunning in their own way. Visually, THE WOMAN KING is a colorful, energetic feast, filled with compelling, interesting characters with whom I was happy to spend a little over two hours.

4 thoughts on “Movie Review: THE WOMAN KING

  1. What an extraordinary movie! I loved everything about it as did my son. My favorite character was the daughter. My son’s favorite was the King. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I forgot to mention how empowering this movie was for me. The strong roles the women played and their ability to fight back were just what my parts needed to see.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Glad you and your son enjoyed it. I appreciated all of the characters, with the two women heroines and Izogie (Lashan Lynch) being my favorites and the mysterious what I call Two Spirit man being my other favorite. But, I liked all of the main characters quite a lot, including the king.

      Liked by 1 person

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