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film review

Viola Davis stars as Nanisca, the strong-willed General of the Agojie, an all-woman army tasked with protecting the West African Kingdom of Dahomey.Handout

  • The Woman King
  • Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
  • Written by Maria Bello and Dana Stevens
  • Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu and John Boyega
  • Classification 14A; 135 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Sept. 16

Critic’s Pick


In many ways, The Woman King feels like the film that director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Old Guard) has been working toward her entire career. With its A-list cast and $50-million budget, the film still retains Prince-Bythewood’s commitment to character and to Black love, both platonic and romantic. It is her Hollywood opus, complete with the thrilling action set-pieces and swelling score to prove it.

Viola Davis stars here as Nanisca, the strong-willed General of the Agojie, an all-woman army tasked with protecting the West African Kingdom of Dahomey. The year is 1823 and, as a Star Wars-esque opening crawl tells us, the embattled kingdom is under threat from both European slavers and the European-backed Oyo Empire. Complicating this mapping of enemies is the fact that the Dahomey have continued to secure their safety and autonomy by acting as tributaries to the Portuguese colonizers, offering up their enemy captives as human chattel.

It is this complicity in the enslavement of Black Africans that acts as a through-line in The Woman King’s narrative, with Nanisca’s advocacy for a more just reality providing much of the film’s moral backbone. There are also smaller narratives, each of which flushes out the world of Dahomey. The most important one is that of Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a young woman who, after challenging the latest in a long line of arranged husbands, is left at the Dahomey palace gates by her adoptive father as an offering for King Ghezo (John Boyega).

The Woman King makes quick work of moving its story forward while also allowing for contemplative moments, offering its characters space to both move and grow in.Handout

Nawi acts often as the audience’s point of view in the film, exploring the royal establishment with wide-eyed wonderment. Rather than beginning a new life as one of King Ghezo’s many brides, Nawi instead is initiated into arduous Agojie training. What follows is one of the strongest acts of the film, its heart even. We witness the lives and governance of the Agojia warriors, their camaraderie, respect and care for one another. More than this, Prince-Bythewood sets us up wholly within a world where living as a warrior is a refuge from gendered violence that these women might otherwise face. The women we see onscreen are survivors of the otherwise damning social order that exists outside of the palace gates.

The Woman King makes quick work of moving its story forward while also allowing for contemplative moments, offering its characters space to both move and grow in. We are privy to many interior lives here, anchored by a powerful lead performance from Davis, which is why the sudden narrative turns that the film takes in its last half too often feel abrupt or unmooring. Prince-Bythwood’s film is deft in materializing realistic battle scenes of epic proportions, similar in tone and undertaking to other historical action flicks such as The Last of the Mohicans, Gladiator, or Braveheart. Where it struggles, however, is in reconciling these blockbuster impulses with its humanist spirit.

While The Woman King is a welcome way of engaging with alternative histories, it also feels inherently at odds with the commensurate politics of the studio action-epic. There is a sincerity to Prince-Bythewood’s work as a whole, which at times feels counter to the conventions of genre it employs here. It is an epic, orchestral effort whose crowd-pleasing nature offers strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. But more than that – and perhaps most impactfully – The Woman King has a fire in its belly.

Special to The Globe and Mail