The Woman King comes to us from screenwriter Dana Stevens (who hasn’t done much of anything noteworthy, I’m sorry to say), who also shares a story credit with producer Maria Bello. (Yes, of all people, that Maria Bello.) Perhaps more importantly, the film was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the black female filmmaker most recently responsible for The Old Guard, still my all-time favorite Netflix original movie.
The film was clearly made and marketed to ride the coattails of Black Panther, offering action thrills and a powerhouse lead performance (courtesy of producer Viola Davis) in an African setting untouched by European colonialism. But this one had a distinctly female-driven gimmick, and it also purported to be based on actual history. Supposedly, this is the story of the real-life badasses that directly inspired Black Panther.
In fact, the film turned out to be every bit as overblown and historically inaccurate as goddamn RRR. Even with no advance research whatsoever, I knew immediately there could be no way a script this sloppy, with so many pathetically thin contrivances, could possibly be based on any kind of true story. Sure enough, Davis’ namesake character is almost entirely fictional. This in turn means there’s no conceivable way real events played out as they did in the film, and several key players couldn’t have possibly existed.
But we’ll come back to that later. For right now, let’s ditch any pretense at historical accuracy and take it from the top, shall we?
We lay our scene in 1823. We pick up shortly after King Ghezo (John Boyega) has risen to power in the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Trouble is, Ghezo came to power by deposing his brother in a bloody coup and Dahomey is thus in a politically unstable time. As a direct result, the neighboring kingdom of Oyo is hitting Dahomey while they’re weak. So the two kingdoms take turns capturing each other’s people, selling off their prisoners to the Europeans for slave labor in exchange for guns and horses and other such goods.
In other words, the two African kingdoms spend all their time and blood killing each other, and it’s the European slavers who profit no matter who wins. This is never addressed. Then again, Oyo is so much larger and so much better-funded than Dahomey that Oyo probably wouldn’t be all that interested in forming any kind of allegiance against a mutual foe anyway. Pretty much the only advantage that Dahomey has is in its soldiers.
See, Dahomey makes it a point not to sell all of their prisoners. Indeed, the dread General Nanisca (that’s the fictional one played by Davis) is actively pushing Ghezo to move away from the slave trade and try selling palm oil to the Europeans instead. More to the point, a great many prisoners of war — specifically the female ones — are given the option to train as soldiers in the elite Agojie corps of badass women.
Folks, did I mention that this script is sloppy? Because this script is a mess.
The film so badly wants to portray Ghezo as this great and beneficent monarch, all while glossing over the fact that he rose to power by killing his own brother, whom we never learn anything about. It’s a film about the evils of the slave trade, yet Ghezo and his people actively profit from engaging in the slave trade, but not as much as Oyo, so I guess that makes it okay. Also, Ghezo is clearly shown as a king with his own harem, but we only ever focus on the one wife (Shante, played by Jayme Lawson) who’s completely useless to the plot. I’d be very interested to hear how slavery is wrong, yet polygamy in the context of a culture that normalizes forced marriages is A-OK, but of course the film doesn’t want to go there.
That isn’t even getting started on the Agojie themselves. For a film that’s supposedly all about the Agojie, their methods and philosophies and so on, the film is wildly inconsistent with regard to their morals and protocols. The people of Dahomey are forbidden from looking at them, except when some villagers do with no consequence whatsoever. They’re supposed to be chaste women forbidden from taking a male lover, but then a trainee (Nawi, played by Thuso Mbedu) gets a romance arc with no consequence whatsoever. The Agojie are supposed to be perfectly loyal to their king, except for when they openly and deliberately disobey a direct order from Ghezo with no consequence whatsoever.
We’re repeatedly told that the Agojie are a sisterhood, yet the final test to become a full-fledged Agojie is framed as a competition with absolutely no room for cooperation. Indeed, an Agojie trainee (Nawi again) is actively admonished multiple times for going back and refusing to leave a sister behind. For fuck’s sake, there’s one scene in which Nanisca openly admonishes a trainee (Yup, that’s Nawi.) for disobeying orders and flying off the handle to act solo — making a huge deal about how the Agojie act as a team and find strength in cooperation — immediately after Nanisca herself abandoned the plan to try and take on the primary Oyo villain (General Oba Ade, played by Jimmy Odukoya) by herself.
The film is so thick with contradictions and hypocrisies that it’s practically incoherent. The film is at least consistent in its anti-colonial message, and I can find a modicum of respect for a film that portrays slavery and racism as all-encompassing systemic issues far greater than any one villain. But the film’s anti-slavery messages are muddied because our “hero” nation actively engages in the slave trade and the movie does not want to talk about it. Our main character spends the entire movie training to fight and learning to kick ass, but the journey feels hollow because the movie can’t settle on a consistent theme about whether being an Agojie means being a stronger individual or being part of something bigger.
Which brings me to the single biggest problem of the script, and it’s the problem I’ve been hinting at through the past several paragraphs: Nanisca isn’t the main character. At least, by all rights, she shouldn’t be.
When we first meet Nawi, she’s been disowned by her family because she refuses to take a husband. With nowhere else to go, she enlists to train in the Agojie and works her way up to be a full-fledged member of the elite female fighting corps. Nawi is the audience viewpoint character, such that we learn about the Agojie and the world of the film as she does. Nawi has the strongest and clearest development arc, and it’s her development arc that drives the plot forward. It’s Nawi who directly interacts with every character in the movie, and every character in the movie is at their strongest and most defined in relation to her.
It’s incontrovertibly clear that Nawi should’ve been the protagonist. On paper, this is unquestionably her story. But as strong as Thuso Mbedu proves herself to be, she’s not the one with a producing credit. Thus the filmmakers have to try their absolute damnedest to shoehorn Viola Davis into every possible scene, give her an undercooked development arc about coping with PTSD as a direct result of rape (Yeah, the movie goes there.), and even find a paper-thin excuse for Nawi to get captured so Nanisca can get her big hero moments in the climax.
But then there’s my personal favorite. Spoilers prevent me from saying too much, but this movie resorts to the most laughably improbable soap opera bullshit just so Nawi’s development arc could tie in with that of Nanisca. The filmmakers were that fucking desperate to try and recenter Nanisca, so outrageously insistent that it’s Nanisca and not Nawi who’s the true protagonist against all evidence to the contrary, they’d try and pull such flagrantly inane absurdity. Fuck that noise.
The film is called “The Woman King“, and the whole film leads up to the moment when Nanisca ascends to the title. But she’s given the title through no interest or effort on her part, and she doesn’t noticeably change in any way once she has it. By comparison, Nawi desperately wants to be a soldier, she spends the whole movie earning her place in the Agojie, and she’s a distinctly stronger and more confident person for her journey. Why in the nine hells do we have a supporting character who’s so much better-developed and more interesting than the woman who’s supposed to be our lead?!
With all of that being said, Viola Davis is a strong enough actor that she could literally deliver an Oscar-worthy performance out of reading the goddamn dictionary. She’s more than charismatic enough to make something out of nothing, and she does that with aplomb here. For that matter, John Boyega is utterly captivating as Gheza, Lashanna Lynch is tremendous fun to watch as a sergeant figure in the Agojie, Thuso Mbedu is a delight as our rightful protagonist… the whole cast is phenomenal from top to bottom. Not a dud in the bunch. Shit, Jordan Bolger plays Malik — the love interest in the most bland, half-assed, wishy-washy, superfluous romance arc I’ve seen in quite some time — and he plays the part like a champ.
What’s more, the whole movie looks great. The production design is spellbinding, the camerawork and editing are solid, and the action scenes… well, the fight scenes were a bit choppy and underlit for my tastes. Still, the fight choreography is great fun to watch and there’s no shortage of fist-pumping “fuck yeah!” moments, so that’s definitely a plus.
There’s nothing wrong with The Woman King that a page-one rewrite couldn’t have fixed. The film looks great, it’s fun to watch, and the film is overflowing with charisma from its powerhouse cast, all of which goes a long way toward distracting from the many crippling flaws of the script. I can’t for the life of me pick out a coherent theme aside from some vague hand-waving about feminism and black empowerment. And much as I love Viola Davis and I totally agree that she deserves her own blockbuster showcase, she’s undercut at every turn because the story wants to go in a different direction altogether. She’s supposed to be the big draw and the filmmakers desperately want her to be the main character, even as the filmmakers are telling a story about a different character entirely.
This is a frustrating one, but it’s certainly entertaining. It’s so well-made and so much fun to sit through, I’d have such an easier time recommending the film if it didn’t keep undercutting itself. I still recommend the film, don’t get me wrong, but that recommendation comes with some huge-ass caveats.