Viola Davis Leads Fierce Action-Drama [TIFF]

Jan 4, 2023

When fans complain about the inclusion of women of color in action franchises, they often fall back on the same talking points: it’s not about sexism, it’s just that filmmakers should create different, original movies for Black and Brown actors. Gina Prince Bythewood has done just that with “The Woman King” and proven what we already knew: that women always have and always will make formidable action heroes.
A female fighting force protects the kingdom of Dahomey against surrounding tribes and the threat of invading Europeans. Forced to balance politics with the ever-looming threat of war, King Ghezo (John Boyega) uses the Agojie warriors to repel his enemies. Like many young rulers, he is surrounded by advisors and wives competing for his favor, but it is Naninsca (Viola Davis) who never fails to impart her wisdom. 
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Davis shines as the war-tried General working tirelessly to steer her people into calmer waters. It is she who informs the King that enslaving their enemies makes them no better than the colonizers who sit on their shores. Nanisca’s love for her sister-warriors and country informs her leadership. Soon, her hope for peace will be tested as the enemies her army has held at bay grow stronger. 
Adding to her workload is a new set of trainees, including the fiery young woman Nawi (Thuso Mbedu). Nawi’s argumentative personality and passion for her new sisters instill fresh energy into the women. She soon finds the family she’s been looking for, thanks to the brave Izogie (Lashana Lynch). Izogie mentors the young pupil, teaching her why they are revered by the people and the sacrifices they must make to remain battle ready.
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From the opening sequence – the Agojie tribe, seen in full force, leaps into action to retrieve their captured countrymen – to the final reel. Director Prince Bythewood does not waste a single frame. Every moment of the film is dedicated to capturing the essence and beauty of Black womanhood. The Agojie warriors may be a unit, but each character stands on their own. As much as the movie may be steeped in action, the intimacy of conversations between Nanisca and Amenza (Sheila Atim) elevates the stakes.
The film’s emphasis on character development is especially evident in Nawi, whose rebellious behavior disguises her feelings of abandonment. She’s a vulnerable young woman in desperate need of affection – a side of Black women that is rarely allowed to appear on film. We also learn why each woman joined the Agoji, which enables the audience to empathize with the characters and root for them during major battle scenes. Audience members may revel in the intricately choreographed fight sequences, but it is our care for each character that makes the battles of “The Woman King” so impactful.
Adding to the film’s might is South Africa’s beauty. A movie depicting African history needed to be filmed in such a historic place. Akin McKenzie’s production design adds authenticity and helps transport the audience to nineteenth-century Dahomey. Gersha Phillips’ costuming sets the tone, and hairstyles by Louisa V. Anthony highlight the beauty of black hair.
The only drawback is that the film begins slowly and picks up at the end, making it feel uneven at times. The love story of Mbedu and Bolger also seems out of place amid all the chaos; however, these are minor drawbacks at worst. And while it would have been nice if the film went deeper into the horrors of the slave trade and how those events altered the continent’s landscape, the story told here is still fantastic. 
“The Woman King” is more than an action movie. It’s a film that depicts a side of African history that is rarely told and an opportunity for Black people to assert their humanity and regality. Gina Prince Bythewood demonstrates that she is an excellent director deserving of more opportunities and larger budgets. “The Woman King” may have an all-star Black cast, but it is destined to be a hit with a diverse range of audiences, proving that action films can thrive well into the fall. [A-]
“The Woman King” will hit theaters on September 16.
Follow along with all our coverage of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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