Review: The Woman King — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Viola Davis stars as a warrior and commander in a 19th century African kingdom in this epic action movie.

Viola Davis in The Woman King (Ilze Kitshoff/Tristar Pictures)

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The Woman King

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

Stars: Viola Davis, John Boyega, Thuso Mbedu

Writers: Maria Bello, Dana Stevens

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival

The movie posters tell all you need to know about The Woman King: There’s Viola Davis, buff as an Olympian, a blood-stained panga machete slung over her shoulder, and an expression on her face that says, “Who’s next?”

Indeed, the body count in The Woman King numbers in the hundreds — perhaps thousands — and Davis’s Nanisca, warrior queen of the 19th century African kingdom of Dahomey, is responsible for a decent percentage of them. Not only does Nanisca command Dahomey’s legendary all-woman army, but she’s also not above dipping her hands into the entrails of battle — lopping off a head, inserting a well-placed dagger, or just roundhouse kicking some poor sap to Kingdom Come.

Then she’ll stand there, in all her blood-and-sweat glory, surveying the carnage she hath wrought. And she’ll walk away silently, eyes fixed to the future…toward her next inevitable battle to the death.

It is a moment the movies have, until this moment, reserved almost exclusively for the likes of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Wayne.

But here’s Davis. A woman. A Black woman. And to be honest, it feels kind of important.

The Woman King has some fragile toehold on a true story: Dahomey really existed (and still does, in a remnant sort of way). It really did mount an entire army of highly trained women as early as the 17th century. And there really was a warrior named Nanisca—although she was no queen; just a girl about whom a French Naval officer wrote in 1889 (the teen, he wrote, executed a prisoner with a sword, then “squeezed the blood off her weapon and swallowed it”).

In this telling, Dahomey is a considerable regional power, but it is subject to some oppression by a neighboring kingdom. Dahomey’s king (Star Wars’ John Boyega) is of a mind to stand up to the bullies, and Nanisca leads her troops into battle more than once in that endeavor, with brutal effect.

But being a movie Warrior Queen can’t be all guts and glory; the audience needs to see she’s got a humane side, too. Luckily, screenwriters Maria Bello and Dana Stevens have just the thing: Recently arrived in the ranks is a young girl (Thuso Mbedu), rejected by her parents for being too darned plucky. Of course, pluckiness is precisely what Nanisca is looking for, and she takes special interest in the new recruit — especially when she notices the girl has a strangely familiar scar on her shoulder.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees) shows a terrific flair for action scenes (she’s clearly seen a lot of Hong Kong fight flicks). She also wisely lingers on the soldiers’ training regimen, convincing us that these women really could take on an army of hulking men — and win.

It would be ironic if Davis, one of the screen’s most accomplished and serious actors, is someday remembered mostly for her turn as a scimitar-wielding warrior queen. But as Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington learned before her, for every butt-kicking payday, there’s always a high-minded indie project right around the corner.

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  1. I agree with Donna, and feel the film (at its core) is largely just another version/take on this genre with the same elements Hollywood does over and over again. I really like Ms. Davis as well, and know she does a wonderful job with the material given, but no thanks here. I’ll wait for the high-minded indie film I know she’ll be making.


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