The Woman King review: Viola Davis at the helm of a furious but linear female epic

The Woman King - Viola Davis (photo Warner Bros Italy)
The Woman King – Viola Davis (photo Warner Bros Italy)

The review by The Woman King with hero Viola Davisa furious but all too linear female epic that tells the true story of the Agojie warriors in 19th century Africa

The (true) story of the Agojie warriors was forgotten by cinema for almost two centuries, but now it finally arrives The Woman King to right the wrong. The film, directed and written by The Old Guard’s Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Viola Davis, John Boyega And Lashana Lynch, is the epic but all too formulaic tale of one of the most powerful and feared all-female armies in history.

The indomitable militia

Kingdom of Dahomey, 1823. Young Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) is sold to the king by her father, tired of the constant rebellions of his daughter who does not want to submit to a marriage of convenience. As soon as she arrives at the court of the Nawi king, however, she will know Izogie (Lashana Lynch), one of the bravest warriors of the Agojie army who for over two centuries have protected the king and the entire kingdom from the attacks of the enemies: the Portuguese colonizers and the Oyo people. Nawi will thus be convinced to undergo a very hard training to become an Agojie under the control of King Ghezo (John Boyega) and especially of General Nanisca (Viola Davis), who will discover that he has a common bond with the young Nawi. When Nawi randomly meets Malik (Jordan Bolger), brother of a ruthless Portuguese slaver, and falling in love with him will risk jeopardizing the entire fate of Dahomey and will have to prove that she is a true Agojie before the war begins.

The Woman King - Thuso Mbedu (Warner Bros Italy)
The Woman King – Thuso Mbedu (Warner Bros Italy)

A true story with watered down characters

The Woman King it’s a real or almost all-female epic, in which the director’s well-declared intent Gina Prince-Bythewood and of the protagonist Viola Davis was to shed light on a rather advanced society from a social point of view and the treatment reserved for women (or part of them), especially considering the fact that we are talking about a small kingdom in West Africa in 1823. The story is undoubtedly interesting, because it allows us to frame a particular historical period and a particular sub-culture without easy prejudices or clichés, but also to tell what has really changed two centuries later as regards female emancipation and the role of women in society Contemporary. It is a bit of a regret, therefore, that the film prefers to concentrate more on the purely physical and military aspect of the story than on the social and personal one.

The warriors of The Woman King they are indeed represented to us with their flaws and the inevitable fragility, but if we partially exclude the characters of Nanisca and Nawi, the rest of the Agojie warriors seem a bit abandoned to themselves, remaining on the sidelines of the story and above all giving too much the impression of having been built on predetermined models with a strong masculine imprint.

The Woman King - Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim (photo Warner Bros Italy)
The Woman King – Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim (photo Warner Bros Italy)

An Africa that tastes too much of America

The kingdom of Dahomey was one of the most powerful and richest kingdoms in African history, and in that sense The Woman King makes sure to represent it in the most truthful and authentic way possible. The problem, therefore, it’s not so much in the impressive sets, in the costumes or in the very warm photography even in the night scenesbut rather in the representation of the dynamics, conflicts and habits of all members of society. First of all, the choice to use English as the “native” language makes one turn up one’s nose, above all because historically speaking that region has always been a French colony as well as a territory full of dialects and speech incomprehensible to the ears of any foreigner. It is a constant problem of the film, that of wanting to somehow level the whole arena to Hollywood blockbuster standards which have little to do with the heart of this story, trying to make the film as attractive as possible to many audiences.

All in this The Woman King America screams much more than Africa, and even the narrative twists themselves are very often predictable, or worse forced. The impression that remains is that of a film built more to highlight a model of a strong womanindependent and able to be dominant in a world of dominant men, rather than a film that really intends to show us the contradictions, the hidden sides both positive and dark and the struggles for emancipation that really took place two centuries ago in that part of the world and of which they constituted the skeleton.

The Woman King - Viola Davis (Warner Bros Italy)
The Woman King – Viola Davis (Warner Bros Italy)

An epic but all too familiar tale

If the intention was to make a film with a certain dose of epic, with hand-to-hand clashes in the name of violence (in any case never excessive), blood and sweat and which could give free rein to anger and the will to independence of its protagonists, so The Woman King All in all a successful film can be said. But the epic necessarily needs to be able to breathe, to find new narrative solutions that resonate in some way with the theme and the arena of the film. This is a work that speaks, first of all, of responsibility and a sense of duty towards our country and above all towards the people we love. This aspect of the theme is clearly visible in the relationship that gradually builds between Nawi and Nanisca, and which Viola Davis stages with his usual emotional charge but it is also an aspect that is somewhat lost when the film decides to shift the focus from the personal dimension to the collective one. Between rapes, lost children, personal vendettas and betrayals, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film therefore rests on an already seen and an already heard which make us regret the endless and more courageous narrative possibilities that such a story would undoubtedly deserve. So a cast that gives sufficient guarantees and in which, in addition to Davis, Izogie di stands out is not enough Lashana Lynch, a suggestive setting and a good rhythm in the management of the plot; they’re not enough because it lacks a strong identity, a true identity also in terms of staging and narration and, lastly, it lacks a bit of that feminine side in a film that would like to talk about women.

The Woman King. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood with Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim and John Boyega, released in theaters on December 1 distributed by Warner Bros Italy.


Two and a half stars

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About David Martin

David Martin is the lead editor for Spark Chronicles. David has been working as a freelance journalist.

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