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Gina Prince-dedication Bythewood’s to love tales has been the source of her power ever since she started directing. In her movies, opulent twilight emotions take place on a basketball court, between generations, on the steps of the entertainment industry, and between immortals. They emphasize the strength and interiority that Black women possess, as well as how often they draw strength from other Black women. She expanded on these topics in “The Old Guard,” a movie she produced for Netflix. But her previous works cannot fully prepare you for the lavishness of her most recent piece.
You might be hesitant to watch “The Woman King,” a big-hearted action-epic whose main difficulty is to be sincere and historical while meeting its blockbuster needs. especially in a landscape where sweeping racial remarks are valued over strong narrative. When one considers their role in sustaining the transatlantic slave trade, one would question how Prince-Bythewood can craft a story centered on the Agojie warriors—an all-female squad of soldiers sworn to honor and sisterhood—hailing from the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Prince-Bythewood and screenwriter Dana Stevens have taken on this enormous challenge with soft sensitivity and a fervent desire to portray Black women as the captains of their own destiny.
The movie starts off stylishly: Men are lounging over a campfire in the middle of a field. They observe a flight of birds flying away on a breeze and hear rustling in the thick grass. Unexpectedly, a frightening Viola Davis as the exhausted Agojie general Nanisca comes from the grass carrying a knife. Then, a full platoon emerges from behind her. The subsequent massacre of the males (the women in the hamlet are left unscathed) takes place as part of this warrior group’s quest to release their captive kin and is drenched in frenzied gore. But Nanisca loses so many allies that she decides to train a fresh group of recruits.
After the exciting opening fight scene, “The Woman King’s” plot can seem a little confusing. However, its excesses support the film’s blockbuster objectives. As a result of his frustration with his stubborn daughter’s unwillingness to wed any of her many suitors, Nawi’s dominating father (Thuso Mbedu) offers up the rebellious teen as a gift to the youthful King Ghezo (John Boyega). However, Nawi never gets to see the King because Izogie, a fearless but lovable warrior played to perfection by Lashana Lynch, recognizes Nawi’s resistance as a strength and takes her on as a trainee under Nanisca. Freedom is promised to everyone who joins the Agojie, but not to those they subjugate. The tyrannical Oyo Empire, which trades their fellow Africans as slaves to Europeans in exchange for weapons, accepts the defeated as payment. The King should end the oppressive cycle, according to the guilty Nanisca. Meanwhile, Nanisca is troubled by a dream, as is the recalcitrant Nawa, who finds it difficult to adhere to some of the Agojie clan’s stringent rules, particularly the “No Men” clause. It might hold the solution to her problems.
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The pure joy of “The Woman King” is in the camaraderie shared by these Black women, despite these awkward narrative beats—a there’s revelation halfway through that almost leads the plot to break apart. They are the love interest of the movie because they devote as much time to one another as they do to their demanding training. “The Woman King” is filled with numerous compositions of Black women taking care of and nourishing one another, and their shared rituals and songs further deepen their abiding love.
In an action movie, Prince-Bythewood isn’t hesitant to rely on emotional weight. Each performer in this large ensemble is given their own place, and they are all challenged naturally rather than being forcibly used as props to instruct white audiences. Sheila Atim, who gave a standout performance alongside Mbedu in Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad,” is calm, observant, and giving as Nanisca’s dependable deputy Amenza. Boyega is charming and authoritative as a monarch, exuding confidence but still figuring out what it means to be in charge (many of his line readers are instantly quotable).
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But “The Woman King” is really disorganized. The cinematographer Polly Morgan finds more freedom while shooting the brutal yet exact battle choreography; she finds that the usage of VFX for landscapes, false extras, and fire frequently flattens the compositions. The low-simmering romance that develops between Nawa and Malik, a ripped Portuguese-Dahomen dream (Jordan Bolger) who is returning to find his roots, is inadvertently comical in its awkwardness even though it is obviously meant to test Nawa’s loyalty to her sisters. Additionally, the plot far too frequently tries to neatly connect these individuals, particularly Nawi and Nanisca.
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However, “The Woman King” is majestic when it succeeds. Gersha Phillips (“Star Trek Discovery”) and Akin McKenzie (“Wild Life” and “When They See Us”) created tactile costumes and meticulous production designs that feel lived in and vibrant. This is especially true of their depiction of the Dahomey Kingdom, which is brimming with colorful and communal scenes. The elegant, astute editing of Terilyn A. Shropshire gives this vast epic room to breathe. The Agojie’s spirit of resistance is also given expression by the stirring score by Terence Blanchard and Lebo M.
Mbedu confirms her status as a star even if Davis is the film’s clear lead, giving an agonizing and psychiatrically taxing performance that is matched pound for pound with her interiority. She gives herself over to the story of a lady who never gives up on anyone because she is so determined to be heard. Every time Mbedu reads, there is a light, and every time there is destruction, there is gloom. She sobs over a dead warrior in one scene, and her impactful howl can be heard all the way from your toes to your spleen.
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Some people might be disappointed with “The Woman King’s” subplots. But epics like “Gladiator” and “Braveheart” are all about the scope and wonder that this film evokes. They’re designed to cause a lump in your throat, make your heart take precedence over your brain, and pull you toward a stirring splendor. Sisterly love, Black love, serves as a compass in “The Woman King” between the big, expansive struggles, between the urge to resist white outside forces and the ambition to overthrow oppressive and racist institutions. “The Woman King” is more than just a motivational rallying cry; it is thrilling and enthralling, emotionally moving, and spiritually uplifted. It’s the film that Prince-Bythewood has been preparing for her entire professional life. She also makes no errors.
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On September 10, this review was submitted from the Toronto International Film Festival. On September 16, “The Woman King” will premiere.