The Woman King

Hollywood is definitely changing. Watching The Woman King, a small-scale historical epic set in Africa and based around a tribe of female warriors, this film would not have been possible even twenty years ago. Yet Black Panther seems to have changed all that. This is a movie made up mainly of black actors, primarily women, and yet, like the Marvel movie before, we are no longer in a world where women are the weaker sex or people of colour are the villains. In fact, while being quite brutal in places, this is another example of positive steps in the filmmaking world.

Dahomey, in the 19th century, the young king was protected by an all-female army from the much larger Oyo Empire, led by the powerful General Nanisca. Having refused to marry a much older man, young Nawi is sent by her adopted father to fight in the army. From her viewpoint, she starts to show promise as a soldier but is caught up in a world of revenge and slave trading.

Some would complain about not being historically accurate, but there are not many films of this kind that really are. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood has decided to take us back to when movies like this were a dime a dozen and play out war between tribes in a time when slavery was at its height. Sure, we could have had a history lesson, but we get solid movie entertainment littered with great performances. The film looks delicious, with first-rate cinematography from Polly Morgan, who captures the African backdrop beautifully and dips the film in an array of orange hues.

The execution of the action scenes is first-rate and often surprisingly brutal. We get thrown into the battles and experience every cut and thrust of the weapons as these strong women take charge of their male counterparts, sometimes with surprising ease. Not having rifles, they use their wits and cunning to outsmart their every move, and even the head-strong Nawi has some neat tricks using a sword on the end of a rope.

Yet this isn’t just a film about violence. There is plenty of human drama. Nawi’s friendship with a young man who can see slavery is wrong. The relationship between Nawi and her commander, Izogie. The dark past of Nanisca fills her with vengeance. All are played out clearly and with skill from the cast. If there are any real complaints, the middle section of the film is at a slower pace, and it does drag but never to the point of boredom.

The crowning glory is the stunning cast, each actor carving out wonderful performances. Lashana Lynch, who played 007 in No Time To Die and will soon be seen as Miss Honey in Matilda the Musical, brings plenty of great comic moments as Izogie while at the same time proving once again what a great physical performer she is. John Boyega gives one of his best performances as the King, and young Thuso Mbedu, as Nawi, is magnificent. She carries most of the film and is definitely the one to watch.

Then there is Viola Davies. The Oscar-winning actress commands the screen as Nanisca. She has such screen presence that all she has to do is give a look, and you know you’re in trouble. Yet while she exudes power and dominance, there is also a softer side, a side coping with the horrors of her youth, and these scenes are just as strong as the ones where she is kicking butt. It’s another outstanding performance from one of the screen’s most reliable stars.

The Woman King has flaws and could have been trimmed in places. Yet this is an exciting, sometimes emotional journey with a lead whose star is getting brighter and brighter. See it on the big screen to get the feel of what movies were once like.

4 out of 5

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Starring: Viola Davies, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, John Boyega, Sheila Atim, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Jimmy Odukoya

Written by: (also story) Dana Stevens and (story) Maria Bello

Running Time: 135 mins

Cert: 15

Release date: 4th October 2022


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