Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude
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Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude

Review: The Woman King Is the Epic Action Film Black Women Deserve

With Viola Davis in tow, the West African kingdom of Dahomey is in good hands.

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Image for article titled Review: The Woman King Is the Epic Action Film Black Women Deserve
Photo: Sony Pictures

While our society has done its best to convince us otherwise, Black women have always been at the forefront of the movement. From the tireless efforts of civil rights icon Ella Baker; to the unsung contributions of Coretta Scott King, who railed against racial injustice through song, fundraising, and other means; to other heroines like Daisy Bates or the astonishing work that WNBA players continue to put in today; Black women have proven time and time and time again that when they lead, we all win. And in keeping that same energy, The Woman King, helmed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, proudly carries on this long-standing tradition.

From the onset of this fictionalized tale, set in 1823, we’re thrust into the contentious dynamic that exists between the West African kingdom of Dahomey, ruled by the majestic King Ghezo (masterfully portrayed by John Boyega); the neighboring Oyo Empire, which would love nothing more than to bring the king’s reign to its merciless end; and the lucrative—yet equally repulsive—transatlantic slave trade. At the epicenter of this quandary is Nanisca (Viola Davis), general of Dahomey’s all-female battalion, the Agojie, who has sacrificed both motherhood and companionship in service to her people. As part of this sworn duty—which also apparently includes looking like a badass in every scene—it’s the Agojie’s responsibility to cash in anyone they capture to the Oyo, who in turn sell these tributes into European slavery.

Morally, this is pretty fucked up and in turn, something Nanisca struggles with. So to rectify this dilemma, she suggests that Dahomey offer palm oil instead of Black bodies in order to rid her kingdom of Oyo rule, therefore allowing her nation to achieve true independence. Unfortunately for her, a decision of this magnitude comes with serious consequences—and in The Woman King, those consequences come in the form of big, burly Black men who are kind enough to be pissed off and heavily armed.

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But while it’s almost too easy to condemn the Oyo and deride them as the film’s antagonists, Nanisca’s greatest battle is actually her war within. This is a fearless general whose own womanhood is in many ways her greatest adversary, and in order to vanquish those who oppose Dahomey’s autonomy, she must tap into her indomitable will and overcome excruciating trauma in order to embrace that same womanhood—as well as the prerequisite journey of self-discovery—as her strongest ally.

And whew, it’s a lot.

Image for article titled Review: The Woman King Is the Epic Action Film Black Women Deserve
Photo: Sony Pictures
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It’s easy to draw comparisons between this film and the forthcoming Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, in part because the creation of our beloved Dora Millaje—who too kick colonizers’ asses for a living—was inspired by the real-life Dahomey Amazons of yesteryear. But you would be doing this riveting film a disserve by reducing its brilliant acting, compelling narrative, and profound emotional weight to a mere replicate, as The Woman King proudly stands on its own as a separate entity entirely.

As an action film, one such example of this is its audacious decision to defy convenient tropes and conventions—such as the rampant racism, sexism, and ageism that continues to corrode Hollywood—by casting a 57-year-old Black woman as its lead. The same 57-year-old Black woman who, over the course of The Woman King’s 135-minute runtime, proves herself entirely capable of the rigors of the job, as she hacks and scowls her way through another Oscar-worthy performance courtesy of a strict diet, “explosive weight and strength training,” and her unwavering resolve. To that end, while I’ll admit that the film’s vigorous fight scenes lack style and spontaneity, I sincerely appreciate that they’re so firmly rooted in realism. Because with Dahomey’s economical independence at stake, the Agojie are fighting from an impassioned place that belies their need to do backflips and one-handed cartwheels mid-battle. As such, making your cinematic experience sexy is the least of their concerns.

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In closing, while the opening act and conclusion of The Woman King unquestionably drag a bit, Prince-Bythewood weaves an extraordinary tale that’s well worth the price of admission. Buoyed by John Boyega’s astonishing portrayal of King Ghezo, Thuso Mbedu’s promising ascension into Hollywood’s elite, and Terence Blanchard’s rousing score, The Woman King keeps Black women exactly where they belong: lauded for their exploits at the forefront of change.