8/10 The Woman King is equal parts a sweeping war epic that actively uses the power of mass media to center black, female and queer stories, a brutal muscle movie and a wet, messy soap opera that lives for drama. It’s an incredibly important work of cinema and culture that is also imminently watchable with all sorts of appeal.
Porto-Novo in present-day Benin, 1823- The Kingdom of Dahomey and the Oyo Empire, from which the Dahomey are rebelling, have begun selling each other’s war captives into slavery in exchange for Portuguese firearms, a suicide pact that will poison both nations to death long before their escalating war. General Nanisca (Viola Davis, who also produces) of the Agojie, the Dahomey’s ferocious female battalion, has just lead a coup to install King Ghezo (John Boyega) as the Dahomey’s new leader in hopes that he will cut off the slave trade, but caught between the Oyo and the Portuguese’ Faustian open offer, he hesitates. Against this backdrop, Nanisca trains a new generation of Agojie for the war effort.
First and most importantly, The Woman King’s action rules, and there’s a ton of it. The film is absolutely packed with violence that is stylized enough to be fun, but never romanticized. You can hear the grunts and feel the thuds of every blow of the ugly Wushu and Kali that not only make the combat seem painful, but makes the combatants’ level of discipline obvious. The weight of their swords is also visible and audible.
It’s also obvious that the action is being performed, none of this is simulated through editing gimmicks. Guns are present, but they’re muzzle-loaders and not every soldier has one, so every battle has this process of building up, starting with a bang, and then immediately dissolving into a horrible, vicious brawl.
Genre is the most important thing about it and makes The Woman King’s point all on its own by inserting black women into war and muscle movie genres. This feels like a movie ripped out of the ‘50s or ‘60s at the height of cinematic spectacle. Its lasting imagery is not of black women posing in positions of dominance, it’s of oil glistening on dark black skin stretched over rippling muscles on stocky, powerful female bodies. This isn’t woke propaganda subject to agreement or disagreement, it’s physical and forceful and visible.
As detailed and action-packed and beautifully designed as the film is, it’s also dumb and soapy with a sprawl of partially drawn characters all in their own storylines. Editor Terilyn A. Shropshire has it put together so that the scenes don’t flow into each other very well, and every maximum-melodrama moment feels like the climax of its own movie, giving it a strong ‘80s schlock vibe. Lethal Weapon springs to mind as a movie with a comparable feel.
The disconnected subplots – Nanisca’s lost daughter, the forbidden romance between an Agojie and a Portuguese slaver, the Agojie’s nature as a refuge for Dahomey women who don’t want to marry – all center around the complex political conflict, drawing direct lines from the tolerance of exploitation of prisoners for labor, sex and sale to everyday people’s lives.
Naturally, The Woman King doesn’t shy away from the commoditization of the human body through war rape and African nations’ complicated relationship with the Atlantic Slave Trade, a fact that wrenches it into the 21st Century no matter how reminiscent it is of older war epics. The stakes and horrors aren’t left to the imagination, but at the same time, it doesn’t linger on the misery of these crimes – again, simply including these in the plot makes the point starkly. Like the most forceful anti-war and anti-capitalist movies, it doesn’t preach, it just draws lines from its conflicts to their roots in the acceptability of war and capitalism.
While it certainly didn’t put on a comparable box office performance, The Woman King is the exact movie Black Panther thinks it is. The action is real, the problematic politics aren’t glossed over, and most importantly, Dahomey feels expansive, or at least you can feel the implicit distance between all the locations. We’re mostly bouncing around from the beach at Porto-Novo to the Dahomey capital and then to disputed territory between the Dahomey and Oyo, and we don’t walk up and down that strand with them, this isn’t Lord of the Rings here, but there is a sense of geography and increasing distance from the shore. Nothing looks like it was shot on a tiny sound stage.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood accomplished all of this on a $50 million budget, that mythical “mid-budget” number that is disappearing from Hollywood, a budget she and Davis had to fight for, and the movie isn’t doing great even relative to that budget, but artistically, The Woman King is a firm argument for setting significant money aside for projects with real passion and creativity behind them. Black Panther, made for four times that number, looks cheap in comparison.
They’ve come out with a much better Black Panther movie now – I remember for months before release, they’d run the trailers right next to each other like a joke everybody came up with and all insisted on telling. It’s a different world now that these movies get made in, and I think undeniably a better one.