Friday, September 16, 2022

Film Review: “The Woman King” Finally Provides Viola Davis With a Leading Role Worthy of Her Talents

The Woman King (c) Sony Pictures

Film Review: The Woman King 
In Cinemas 

Premise: In the mid-1800s, at the height of the slave trade in Africa, the West African kingdom of Dahomey, now ruled by new King Ghezo (John Boyega), must decide if Dahomey should still be part of the problem as the custom is to give their war prisoners to the Europeans or Americans traders in exchange for wealth and partnership. Dahomey is the target of bigger, neighboring tribes, but their battle troops are fortified by the Agojie, an all-female warrior unit headed by General Nanisca (Viola Davis). Enter Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a young woman of the village who wants to join the Agojie after her adopted parents realize she’s too strong-headed to ever get married. She is taken under the wing of Izogie (Lashana Lynch), but Nanisca also thinks Nawi may be too independent-minded and impulsive to be a successful warrior. Shante (Jayme Lawson), a young Brazilian man who has come to Africa to fulfill his promise to his mother to see her former homeland before she was sold as a slave, arrives in Dahomey and is instantly smitten with Nawi. Clouding all this is an imminent attack from the Oyo tribe lead by Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), withwhom Nanisca had a violent encounter in the past. 

My Take: From the trailers, I was led to believe the film would be a real-life historical superhero movie with Dahomey being a sort of Wakanda without the vibranium. The Agojie is certainly the inspiration for the Dora Milaje of the “Black Panther” series. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Old Guard,” “The Secret Life of Bees”) wisely leans into this similarity to give audiences a way into this story, which turned out to be less of a superhero movie–don’t get me wrong, there’s enough kickassery to fill two Marvel movies–and more of a Greek tragedy surrounding Nanisca, who even has prophetic nightmares as well as a past that only Sophocles (or maybe Shakespeare) could heap on one poor human. To say that Viola Davis is up to the task is an understatement as she commits body and soul to her performance. Her fierceness fuels the movie, which also inspires young newcomer Thuso Mbedu, to match her beat by beat. British actresses Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim (as Nanisca’s closest confidant) also stand out, but the entire ensemble is impressive, especially during the battle scenes. The film could have done without the budding attraction between Nawi and Shante, as it distracts from the larger story, especially with an obviously built-in sequel plotline at the ready. This is a crowd-pleasing and rousing action flick that should be seen on the big screen. 

The Woman King (c) Sony Pictures

VIP: Terence Blanchard. Ok, you might say with all those great actresses, how can you pick a guy? Well, since it’s such a strong ensemble, not one of those actresses is any more important to the success of the film than any other. But Blanchard, who was Oscar nominated for two movies with frequent collaborator Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman” and “Da 5 Bloods”), has never been more impressive than here. Blanchard has always leaned into the heightened drama of his score, but here his gorgeous music has a restraint and beauty that I feel is lacking in his more high-profile efforts. “The Woman King” may finally win Blanchard the Oscar his admirers believe is long overdue. I’ll cosign that.

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