We all knew Viola Davis was an Oscar and Emmy winner, an extraordinary orator, and one of the great actors of her generation. We did not know she was a bona fide superhero, however, until Gina Prince-Bythewood gave her a proper superhero’s entrance. The first time we see the title character in The Woman King, the director’s sweeping story of female soldiers in 19th-century Africa, it’s during a rescue mission already in progress. A group of raiders have taken over a village. Women and children, soon to be sold off to slave traders, huddle in fear. There’s a rustling in the grass.
And then Davis’ General Nanisca emerges from the brush, brandishing an almost comically large sword and showcasing a look of intense ferocity. You notice her hair, pinned up and side-shaved in a gladiator’s ’do. You clock the abundant battle scars, which are visible on her body even in the pale moonlight. What stands out, however, is the way Prince-Bythewood films her, from a slightly low angle and in a way that emphasizes strength, bravery, leadership, nobility, the promise of violence. Even before she lets loose a war cry as her fellow fighters pop up all around her, you never doubt you’re in the presence of a warrior. Or maybe, thanks to the near-mythic aspect of the way Davis fills the frame — head up, chin out, arms flexed — the Goddess of War herself.
Nanisca leads the Agojie, the real-life elite troops from the African kingdom of Dahomey that would give the Spartans stiff competition in the killing business. Once these women go once more into the fray, you see why they’ve earned their reputation. Along with her second-in-command officers, Izogie (No Time to Die‘s Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim), the general runs into the middle of this melee, slicing any and all opponents. Her soldiers flip over each other’s backs, leap into the air, turn spears into throat-skewering projectiles. They’ve soon gracefully gutted a platoon’s worth of mercenaries. Having freed the hostages — though not without a few casualties — Nanisca and her women head home as conquering heroes, secure in the knowledge that they have rid the world of some bad men and liberated moviegoers from any lingering notions that female filmmakers can’t shoot thrilling, showstopping action sequences.
Prince-Bythewood had already proved this, of course, with The Old Guard, her 2020 comic-book movie that put Charlize Theron through her own immortal-warrior-kicks-much-ass paces. So much of The Woman King is about underestimating “the fairer sex” — consider those the scariest of quotation marks — and a keen viewer might wonder if that aspect of the story didn’t resonate in regard to its creators’ experiences as well. If you’ve been following Prince-Bythewood’s work since Love & Basketball (2000), you’re well aware that she’s an extraordinary director of actors, has a masterly sense of pacing, and knows not just how to tell a story but how to enhance it. Yet it wasn’t until her previous feature (and an episode of the Marvel show Cloak & Dagger) that she proved she’d also mastered the kinetic art of making a mass-friendly, blockbuster-level spectacle, which only made you wish she’d been given the opportunity to display said skills sooner. This new film adds scope into the mix as well. It’s an old-fashioned epic, a bygone cast-of-thousands relic of a moviegoing era that feels nearly as distant as 1823 West Africa. The temptation is to say it’s a David Lean-style adventure. It’s really a full-metal Gina Prince-Bythewood movie. Maybe the Gina Prince-Bythewood movie, given the way she’s marshaled all of her talents here.
It’s definitely a Viola Davis star vehicle as well, and while we’ve seen this veteran of stage and screen on the periphery of mayhem before (exhibit A: her various Suicide Squad-related appearances), it’s the first time that Davis has been at the center of such carnage, not to mention the catalyst of it. It’s a physically transformative performance; she’s changed her entire stature and the way she moves across a screen. Her walk resembles a wrestler’s gait, with her head forward, shoulders squared and arms slightly akimbo, and she has a way of exuding strength and prowess simply by slightly turning her head so her neck muscles become visibly tense. The way she handles a scimitar suggests it’s an old friend and confidante; her way of throwing herself at enemies is somehow graceful and blunt-instrument brutish. All of the character’s uncertainty, vulnerability, and tamped-down sorrow, all of the pain in her past, come out through her eyes — utilizing the windows to her soul has been a specialty since day one, or at the very least, since Doubt (2008). Still, action is character here. Nanisca may command an army for her regent, King Ghezo (John Boyega), yet Davis lets you know that this is a woman who, on the battlefield, bows down to no man.
The general doesn’t just head up Ghezo’s security force, however — she’s also one of many wives he’s taken. Whether or not Nanisca will eventually ascend to the traditional role of woman king, in which ruling is divided equally among the masculine and the feminine, over the other spouses is one of a half dozen plotlines vying for attention. There’s also a coming-of-age story involving a girl, Nawi (The Underground Railroad‘s Thuso Mbedu), who is reluctantly forced into the ranks of the Agojie and must push past her limits and bad attitude to prove herself worthy of the honor. (Think An Officer and a Gentleman, but with more swords and colonialism.) The bond between the new recruit and her trainer Izogie, as well as her relationship with Nanisca, each have their own twists and turns, as does a romantic subplot between Nawi and a hot, oddly often-shirtless Portuguese ambassador (Jordan Bolger). Plus, war is brewing between Dahomey and a rival kingdom who want to control the land’s resources, which is the basis for many of Prince-Bythewood’s kinetic, adrenaline-overdose combat sequences. You want trauma-based melodrama and a workplace comedy, the latter led by Lashana Lynch’s wisecracking, ass-kicking deputy? You’ll get that, too.
(We hate to say that any one performer steals a movie that so doggedly works to give its ensemble so much screen time and stuff to do. Yet Lashana Lynch is most assuredly first among equals in terms of the supporting cast — Izogie is the sort of tragicomic, shoot-the-moon, standout type of role that brings out the best in the British actor, and vice versa. In every scene she’s in, Lynch radiates charisma and presence, along with a grab bag of expressions ranging from sisterly to sarcastic, while never taking the focus away from her partners in crime or the movie’s momentum. It’s the sort of performance that makes you think of, say, Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, or Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, or Joe Pesci in Goodfellas or Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway. As to what those four turns have in common? Please feel free to read between the lines, Academy voters.)
The more that Dana Stevens’ screenplay, which shares story credit with writer-actor Maria Bello, keeps adding to the narrative, the more The Woman King risks collapsing under its own weight. Yet there’s so much filmmaking A-game on display (not just Prince-Bythewood, naturally, but also composer Terence Blanchard, cinematographer Polly Morgan, production designer Akin McKenzie, costume designer Gersha Phillips) and so much Old Hollywood territory being wonderfully claim-staked that the pros far, far outweigh the cons. An Afrocentric historical epic designed to be screened as big as possible, made by a Black female filmmaker, starring a Black woman of a certain age as an action hero, telling a story that’s left out of world-history books, vying for a mass audience in the age of I.P. imperialism — these are not just qualifiers for The Woman King. They are the sounds of ceilings being shattered and, hopefully, left to rot as piles of splintered glass on the ground. If they do, it will be in no small part due to this film. See it, however, not because it’s the first of many such future projects. See it because of the high bar it sets for all movies that still want to thrill you, move you, and operate on a larger-than-life level. Nanisca isn’t the only hero here.