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Viola Davis is 'The Woman King' in an epic story inspired by true events

Nanisca (Viola Davis) wields a sword and hacks her way through the many men who get in her way in<em> The Woman King.</em>
Ilze Kitshoff
Nanisca (Viola Davis) wields a sword and hacks her way through the many men who get in her way in The Woman King.

One of the more heartening Hollywood comeback stories in recent years has been the return of the director Gina Prince-Bythewood with movies like The Old Guard and now The Woman King. It had been a long wait for many of us who adored her earlier films like Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights. As Prince-Bythewood has said in interviews, her focus on women protagonists, especially Black women protagonists, had made it hard over the years to get her projects off the ground. Fortunately, the industry is changing, and it's finally come around to recognizing her talent.

Her latest movie, The Woman King, is her most ambitious project yet, a rousingly old-fashioned action-drama, drawn from true events, about women warriors in 19th-century West Africa. The movie originated with the actor Maria Bello, who produced it and wrote the story with the film's screenwriter, Dana Stevens. It opens in 1823 in the kingdom of Dahomey, located in what is now Benin. For several centuries, this kingdom was defended by an army of women fighters called the Agojie.

In the movie, the Agojie are led by the powerful General Nanisca, played by a galvanizing Viola Davis. She isn't the ruler of this kingdom — that would be the king, played by John Boyega — but given the movie's title, you suspect it's only a matter of time. The Agojie warriors are fighting the male soldiers of the Oyo Empire, who've been attacking Dahomey villages. To build up her army, Nanisca brings in a new batch of female recruits, among them an impetuous teenager named Nawi, played by Thuso Mbedu, the terrific South African star of last year's The Underground Railroad.

Much of the script centers on the growing bond — and the growing tension — between Nanisca and Nawi. As the leader of the Agojie, Nanisca insists that all her warriors follow a strict code that includes lifelong celibacy. Nawi chafes at that restriction, and her independent-mindedness often clashes with the Agojie's values of discipline and self-sacrifice. But by the end, Nawi absorbs those values and becomes a courageous fighter, honing her skills through many exciting scenes of training and competition.

The Woman King was shot on location in South Africa, and its re-creation of the Dahomey villages is so immersive — the costumes, designed by Gersha Phillips, are especially gorgeous — that it just about carries you past some of the messiness of the storytelling. To its credit, the script addresses some of the historical complexities of the situation, including the fact that Dahomey became a rich kingdom by participating in the trans-Atlantic slave trade — a practice that Nanisca wants to end. She also has a personal score to settle with the Oyo warriors, and The Woman King is sometimes a little unsteady in its mix of political plotting and emotional drama. A romantic subplot involving Nawi and a hunky European explorer feels especially tacked-on.

Nanisca may not be the most complex character Davis has played, but it's thrilling to see her take on her first major action showcase as she dons battle gear, wields a sword and hacks her way through the many, many men who get in her way. And she isn't the only one: My favorite performance in the movie comes from Lashana Lynch as Izogie, a top warrior who takes young Nawi under her wing. You might have seen Lynch squaring off with Daniel Craig's James Bond in No Time to Die, and here she manages to be funny, heartbreaking and fierce.

Prince-Bythewood has conceived The Woman King in the grand-scale tradition of epics like Braveheart and Gladiator, this time with women leading the charge. While the action doesn't rise to the same visceral intensity as in those films, it makes for an engrossing and sometimes exhilarating history lesson. I left the theater thinking about how an old civilization recognized the strength of what women could do — and how it's taken the empire of Hollywood so long to do the same.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.

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