Based on a fascinating true story, “The Woman King” delivers audiences a different kind of onscreen hero. Instead of rich white playboys cavorting around in elaborate costumes, director Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s film features a cast of black women portraying warriors who are just as strong, tough, and brave as a typical Hollywood hero. It’s refreshing to see an action film without a heavy emphasis on CGI, and it’s even more exciting to watch a feminist historical action film that’s wildly entertaining.
In the 1800s, the African Kingdom of Dahomey was protected by a highly skilled, extensively trained, all-female unit of warriors known as the Agojie. These women were put through grueling exercises to become some of the fiercest soldiers in the world. They were taught to never show pain or weakness, and became proficient in the art of sword and spear weaponry. The film tells the journey of General Nanisca (Viola Davis) as she trains the next generation of young warriors. She must prepare these new recruits to battle their most formidable enemy yet: slave traders, both European and African.
History has been fictionalized a bit for the sake of entertainment, but the core facts on which the film is based are true. This is an important story that very few people have ever heard, and screenwriter Dana Stevens brings the tale to life in an engaging fashion. It’s a smart script that touches on the hot-button topic of Africans selling their own people into slavery, which is weaved together with criticisms of archaic misogyny. Both of these difficult historical realities are made more palatable to mainstream audiences with period-appropriate dance sequences (rituals that were often practiced by the Agojie before going into battle) and well-choreographed fight scenes.
It’s invigorating to see black women’s stories like this presented onscreen, especially when the film centers around an aging warrior. Davis gives a potent, award-worthy performance and is a bonafide action star in a role that’s atypical for a 56-year-old actor (especially one who is black and female). The supporting actors (including Thuso Mbedu, Sheila Atim, Lashana Lynch, and John Boyega) are just as terrific. The majority of the cast is comprised of black women, which is a welcome achievement on its own.
“The Woman King” is an epic tale about struggles against oppressors, the quest for liberation, and an army of badass women fighters. It just may be one of the biggest surprises of the year.