William Wallace Meets Viola Davis – The Woman King

There was a mild controversy this past weekend when Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest film, The Woman King, finally hit theatres. Concerning the movie’s historical accuracy, there are some who raised a stink about how the Dahomey (the West African kingdom at the center of the action) are depicted with regards to the slave trade.

There are some legitimate issues to raise, but honestly, to harp on that one aspect is to miss the point of the film entirely. This is not meant to be a definitive record of anything. The story is almost completely fiction, and is much more focused on character than on recounting any actual events. This is African Braveheart, not Schindler’s List. It’s a stylized war fantasy, and should be judged for what it is, rather than what it isn’t.

As for what it is, it’s good. It’s really good. There are things to laud and things to criticize. I was thoroughly entertained, but by no means blown away. It’s a perfectly serviceable film, and while its shortcomings should be acknowledged, I’m much happier about something like this winning the weekend box office ($19 million – far from great, but an accomplishment nonetheless) than whatever latest franchise IP gets churned out on a near-weekly basis.

Set in the 1820s, Dahomey has just crowned a new king, Ghezo (John Boyega), and is at a crossroads due to skirmishes with the nearby Oyo Empire, to whom they are a tributary. The Oyo, under the military leadership of General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), invades Dahomey villages and kidnaps their citizens to sell to slavers (led here by Hero Fiennes Tiffin). However, Dahomey begins fighting back with the use of their elite female warriors, the Agojie, led by Nanisca (Viola Davis). The Agojie are revered in Dahomey, living within the palace walls, and when in public, the people must avert their gaze.

Nanisca has Ghezo’s ear, and serves as a trusted advisor. She recommends that Dahomey break off relations with Oyo and the slavers, much to the chagrin of Ghezo’s harem, specifically the aristocratic and ambitious Shante (Jayme Lawson). Meanwhile, Nanisca must deal with a haunting past with the help of the mystic Amenza (Sheila Atim), as well as train a new class of recruits, aided by her veteran lieutenant Izogie (Lashana Lynch).

One of those new fighters is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), given to the Agojie after she refused to be sold into marriage by her father. Nawi is smart, loyal, and has good instincts, but she is headstrong and often disobeys orders. It is up to all of them to come together in strength in order to beat back the Oyo threat, and thus ensure their freedom.

If all of this sounds like every war movie you’ve ever seen, you’re not wrong. Despite the geographical, historical, and demographic contexts, this is a very derivative story. In addition to the most direct parallel mentioned above, you can find shades of The Patriot, Glory, Forrest Gump, Full Metal Jacket, 300, and a host of others within these scenes. The characters themselves are basically just archetypes. Nanisca is the weary leader who wears her scars like badges of honor and reluctantly starts warming to her younger charges. Izogie is the mentor who drives the protagonist forward. Nawi is every young buck private out of their depth who grows into a warrior through the crucible of battle and seeing what it truly means to fight, and of course she develops her skills through a training montage where she’s the only one not able to keep up at first. Despite taking a vow to never marry or bear children (Night’s Watch much?), Nawi has a tacked-on romance with a Dahomey-Brazilian trader named Malik (Jordan Bolger) that can only end in one of three ways, two of which would severely undermine any thematic weight the plot has.

It’s all been done before, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it’s nice to put a fresh coat of paint on old walls, especially if the execution is sound. And for the most part, it is in this case. Viola Davis gives a solid performance, her eyes often conveying the moment much more effectively than her words. She’s one of the most versatile, committed actresses in the world, and the paces she puts herself through for this project is just another fine example of how truly awesome she is. The costuming and set designs are fantastic to look at. The choreography, both in dance and in battle, is quite impressive, particularly when the camera lingers long enough for the performers to do some eye-popping acrobatics and stunt tumbling. Terence Blanchard, who normally works with Spike Lee, creates a heart-pounding score mixing classical instrumentation with traditional African rhythms and thundering drums. There’s a lot of good stuff here.

But there are some flaws as well. The plot structure is very paint-by-numbers within war movie conventions. The film opens with a text crawl that is also narrated, yet the timing is off so that the text goes off the screen while it’s still being read out loud. In a desire to maintain a PG-13 rating, much of the fight scenes are shot either in darkness or shadow, with quick MCU-style cuts to avoid showing any blood spatter, to the point that the bodies of the dead after the fact barely show any signs of struggle. In that same vein, it’s weird to me to have training scenes where attack dummies are decapitated yet we never see one in an actual fight. Don’t tease what you can’t (or won’t) pay off. One of the characters is so clearly marked for death that you can’t even bother caring about them, and many of the others aren’t distinct enough to have their own arcs. A second act twist is meant to raise the dramatic stakes, but instead it ends up diluting them because it completely undercuts Nanisca’s character motivations.

And yes, the whitewashing is something you should be aware of as you go in. In real life, the Dahomey were active in the slave trade pretty much until the end of their civilization, whereas here in the film, Nanisca uses her influence on King Ghezo to encourage him to abandon slavery in favor of goods trading, like palm oils. It honestly wouldn’t even bear mentioning if attention wasn’t drawn to it as a means to establish the Dahomey as the good guys. It’s heavy-handed, and completely without nuance, which would normally be to the movie’s detriment. However, I’m happy I knew this in advance, because it simply reinforced that this is all a fantasy. What we see on the screen is pure fiction, and can be enjoyed as such. And maybe, just maybe, it can encourage people to read up on the actual kingdom and learn some history they otherwise wouldn’t have known. Is it lame to go that far away from the truth for the sake of the spectacle? Yes, but it’s been done plenty of times before, and those who would call for a boycott based on that should just get a life.

I know it’s weird to hear ME say this of all people, but it’s just a movie. And it’s a good one at that. It’s not great. It’s not an all-timer. It probably won’t even go down in the long run as being all that important. But it was cool. It was entertaining. It had an overall good message, strong performances, and some occasional kick-ass moments. There are so many other movies that make way more money yet fail to clear even these basic benchmarks. It’s flawed, but it’s certainly worth your time, and if you’re less nitpicky than I am (and I’m guessing most of you are), that’s more than enough.

Grade: B

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How important is historical accuracy within a movie’s context? Do you have any cool scars? Let me know!

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