The excitement of a historical war film is frequently at odds with the subject. War itself is miserable, complex, and sometimes lacking in heroic purpose. War movies, especially the Technicolor epics of old, tend to be thrilling affairs, in which stars triumph in the crucible of battle. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King, one of the director’s largest-scale works to date, is packed with well-choreographed action carried out by the Agojie, a valiant army of women who defended the African kingdom of Dahomey for thousands of years. The film is designed to get audiences cheering—but it does so without ignoring the brutal realities of combat.
Prince-Bythewood has always made films that mix the bitter and the sweet, regardless of the genre. Her stunning 2000 debut, Love & Basketball, pours romantic drama into the familiar structure of a sports movie. Since then, she’s made the somber period piece The Secret Life of Bees, the glitzy but tender superstar romance Beyond the Lights, and 2020’s comic-book adaptation The Old Guard, which was enough of a hit for Netflix to green-light a sequel. The Old Guard has terrific action, but it’s intentionally pulpy. The Woman King tackles a far more intricate story. Although Prince-Bythewood stages plenty of sensational fight scenes, she’s equally interested in grappling with the subtler political conflicts at work.
The Woman King, written by Dana Stevens, is set in Dahomey (located in present-day Benin) during the 1820s. The story follows General Nanisca (played by Viola Davis), the leader of the elite Agojie fighting group dubbed “the Dahomey Amazons” by European outsiders. The Agojie not only were revered as warriors in West Africa but also played a prominent political role in their country. Nanisca is Dahomey’s prime defender, but she’s an advocate for seismic change as well, arguing that her king should move away from participating in the Atlantic slave trade—a major source of profit.
The leaders of Dahomey, like those of many African nations of the period, would sell prisoners of war taken from other tribes into bondage. Although King Ghezo (John Boyega) makes a point of not selling his country’s own people, Nanisca pushes him to abandon the practice entirely, an effort that both gained and lost ground within Dahomey at different points throughout the 1800s. Nanisca faces two foes: the neighboring Oyo empire, which seeks to capture Dahomey people, and the European traders on whom the slave industry relies. The characters are riffs on history—Ghezo was a real ruler, but Nanisca is fictional and meant to represent the Agojie’s political sway—and as with any historical retelling, the film trims and rearranges its real-life context to serve dramatic arcs. Even so, what’s crucial about The Woman King is that, unlike many works in the war genre, it doesn’t brush off tough questions of morality. Instead, it brings them to the fore, making the Agojie’s battle more than a simple matter of good versus evil.
Davis’s performance is resolute and steely, reminiscent of her terrific lead work in Widows—she plays a character whose poise belies plenty of hidden pain. Her co-lead, of sorts, is Thuso Mbedu, who gave a wonderful performance in Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad last year. Mbedu plays Nawi, a new recruit to the Agojie who functions as the audience’s introduction to their impressive but regimented world. If Nanisca is all discipline, Nawi is passion and impulsiveness, fighting with a more free-form style and embarking on a forbidden romance (one that is, unfortunately, not fleshed out enough to really work).
The standout cast also includes Lashana Lynch as the fierce warrior Izogie, who’s tasked with training Nawi, and Sheila Atim, who gives a strikingly empathetic performance as Amenza, the right-hand woman to Nanisca who counsels her through her most difficult decisions. Prince-Bythewood is skilled at building out elaborate worlds without clunky exposition, and the script makes The Woman King’s internal politics easy to grasp even though much is left unsaid. Boyega’s Ghezo is prickly, egotistical, and unsentimental. Nanisca’s objection to the slave trade is deeply emotional, whereas his consideration of the issue is plainly economical—and he tasks her with searching for alternatives to fill his country’s coffers.
Philosophical quandaries pervade all of Nanisca’s literal and metaphorical battles, against both the neighboring kingdom and Portuguese slavers. Those difficult stakes make Prince-Bythewood’s impressive, violent combat compositions all the more involving. The Woman King is a barn burner if you’re just looking for an invigorating night at the movies. But Prince-Bythewood’s real triumph is in grounding that sterling entertainment in a challenging dramatic text.