The Woman King is a stunning historical epic from Gina Prince-Bythewood that is all the more stunning because it is based on actual events.
From the moment the first trailer was unveiled, the story of The Woman King grabbed my attention because it covered a portion of history that I’d never heard of before. I had no idea that the Kingdom of Dahomey had all-female fighting units and I was eager to see them brought to life on the big screen.
The story of The Woman King is set in the early 1800s and follows the (fictional) General Nanisca as played by Viola Davis, as she works to train the next generation of female warriors to help protect the kingdom. Her story interweaves with that of Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a young woman training to become an elite warrior. Viola Davis’ performance as Nanisca is unquestionably one of the highlights of this movie. What really sucked me in with her performance is Davis portraying Nanisca not just as a powerful warrior, but as a woman with hidden depths and burdens that come from leading others into battle. On the other side, Thuso Mbedu turns in a star-making performance as the young Nawi. Watching her transform from an outspoken teenager into a fierce warrior is a very moving experience and will definitely speak to women watching the film who want to find their voice.
Aside from the story of Nanisca and her female warriors, the biggest part of the story, not surprisingly, revolves around the slave trade. While the film does take certain liberties with Dahomey’s history with slavery, it does not gloss over the awfulness of the slave trade itself. The horror of people being bought and sold into a life of slavery is presented in all its ugliness, including a rather uncomfortable scene where one of the Africans is “inspected” by a slaver on the auction block. Though uncomfortable to watch, it helps bring home why Nanisca and her warriors are fighting so fiercely to protect their home.
Another interesting plot detail is how The Woman King explores, however briefly, the dilemma that biracial people experienced at this point in history. One character, with an African mother and a white father, is at one point brutally reminded that he could easily have been on the auction block with the other Africans. It’s a pointed reminder of the challenges biracial people faced then and continue to face today, being torn between two worlds as they are.
Finally, I have to mention the stunning fight sequences that are scattered throughout the film. They are brutal and violent and at the same time a thing of beauty to watch. It wasn’t surprising for me to learn that most of the stunts were done by the actors themselves. Even better, the film wastes no time in getting to the action, starting off with an epic fight sequence.
The Woman King is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year. While historical liberties are taken, I don’t think that detracts from the message it’s trying to tell about the story of the Dahomey warriors.