Thursday, June 20, 2024

‘The Woman King’ Combines Blockbuster Thrills with Historical Drama

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Gina Prince-Bythewood has been making movies for twenty-two years and television for twice as long, with a track record so reliable that if she were anyone else, white or male, she would be a more prominent name. Still, as good as she is, and as big a fan as I am, The Woman King is unlike anything she has done before. Yet, the film is filled with themes and ideas that have reverberated through her entire filmography. 

Dana Stevens has written a historical drama with the earmarks of a tragedy, with its inescapable sense of the web of fate, while maintaining a sensitive human touch, never downplaying the genuine horrors and never exploiting the historical realities. General Nanisca (Viola Davis), leader of the Ajoije, an all-woman warrior unit under King Ghezo (John Boyega) of the Dahomey tribe, must fight the tides of history, her kingdom, and within herself.

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General Nanisca (Viola Davis) and Nawi (Thuso Mbedu)

Some may not be a big fan of Stevens’s script as I am. However, Stevens’s writing allows every character to have a moment, and Prince-Bythewood capitalizes on all of those, packing The Woman King with applause-worthy moments that never feel cheap. I make no apologies. I’m a sucker for any story in which one character tells another, “The Gods would not be so cruel.” A line, when spoken, all but screams that they would and have been.

A sweeping epic, The Woman King is built upon a foundation of characters who feel fully realized and inhabited by a charismatic and expressive cast. Alongside the towering Davis in a role of a lifetime both in physicality and restrained emotionally, there is her second in command, Amenza (Sheila Atim), the jocular Izogie (Lashawna Lynch), and new arrival Nawi (Thuso Mbedu). Prince-Bythewood allows every actor room to create a rich emotional life.

The Woman King deftly wrestles with the Dahomey’s history of slavery, making the fact the driving force. Nansica wants to end the practice, while her king seems wary. Nanisca argues that slavery only benefits the white colonizers while pointing out that they will one day come for the Dahomey. If that was all Stevens’s script was about, The Woman King would still be a great film. But Stevens looks at sisterhood and the difficult choices they are asked to make to be a part of the elite and legendary Agojie.

Not only that but Prince-Bythewood and Stevens allow the audience time to get to know these characters as the wheel of fate inexorably turns. Lynch’s Izogie is so full of life that it becomes clear how much other Hollywood blockbusters have wasted her. Izogie lights up the screen whenever she comes on with her easy stride and enigmatic smile. She can’t help but be amused when she meets Nawi, a young woman given to the king, because she refuses to marry any man her parents give her to.

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Izogie (Lashana Lynch)

Mbedu holds her own with Lynch, Atim, and Davis, the latter being an actual test of ability. She matches Davis’s growling stoicism with an obstinate arrogance of youth, and the clash is electrifying. Nawi is in awe of the Agojie, but the rules they follow seem so strict. Then, of course, she shocks everyone and becomes the rising star of the recruits but not while also confounding them with her devotion to her fellow trainees.

When Nansica chides Nawi about helping a friend during a tournament, Nawi counters that she would help Amenza if she were in trouble. “I would step on her head to win a foot race.” Amenza laughs briefly before stopping and wondering if her friend is joking.

Atim is a stand-out in a movie filled with stand-outs. She compliments Davis’s Nanisca, tempering her intuition with her observations. Every line and movement of hers is natural and unforced. 

Then one day, Malik (Jordan Bolger) arrives, along with his slave trading best friend Santo (Hero Fiennes Tiffin). Malik is the son of captured Dahomey and a white man and has returned to see his homeland. Naturally, Nawi is smitten, immediately testing the “no men” rule of the Agojie. Love stories are Prince-Bythewood’s bread and butter, and it’s no different here.

Bolger and Mbedu’s affair is that of star-crossed lovers. Prince-Bythewood films it with a sensitive but charged touch, a love that can never be because of time, place, and circumstance. It also couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the Oyo tribe is slowly conquering other tribes and growing larger, threatening the Dahomey. While friendly with the Dahomey, Malik, and Santo are doing business with the Oyo.

Prince-Bythewood takes all these tangled webs and weaves them into one vibrant tragic-historical drama. The Woman King is filled with little touches in every performance. Boyega’s Ghezo, for example, gives a speech toward the end about how the Dahomey must stop capturing and trading enslaved people. 

Boyega, an established magnetic presence, gives a tour-de-force performance during this moment. As he spoke, I could see Ghezo start to believe the words he was saying, realizing the truth of the words as they left his mouth, his voice growing with more force and passion by the end.

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Amenza (Sheila Atim)

The Woman King is remarkably intense; I forgot it was rated PG-13. One scene in particular with Izogie putting her broken arm “back into place” had me squirming in my seat. We don’t see it, but oh man, did I feel it.

Polly Morgan’s camera struggles with CGI, but it’s a pageantry of motion and movement when the action starts. The battle scenes are brutal and terse, with enough gore that never spills over into gory. Prince-Bythewood and Morgan make The Woman King a roaring blockbuster and an intimate character study without ever really sacrificing one for the other.

Then, at the end of it all, there’s Viola Davis. Naniscia is a physically demanding role as it is an emotional one, and Davis nails it with ease. Davis is such an immense talent it is easy to take it for granted that she nails a role, but her Nanisca has no classic Davis scene where she blows up and unleashes a torrent of emotion. Instead, she is constantly measured, forced to hide her feelings to not appear as anything other than the great General Nansica. 

It is a performance that, if any other actor gave it, would make them a star. But, for Davis, who is already a star, she must settle for it being one of her finest performances in a career filled with them. Nanisca’s character is like Lear, full of regret but, unlike Lear, realizes the consequences of her actions, and dares to challenge the gods.

The Woman King is a film that straddles being important with a capital “I” while also being a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. Rich with interior life and unafraid of the morally gray areas so many blockbusters seem allergic to, it weaves melodrama with action effortlessly. Yet, amidst all this, it is another step toward a broader, more mature cinematic interrogation of slavery.

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

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