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"THE WOMAN KING"
(2022) (Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Action: The leader of an army of African female soldiers must contend with her past while also dealing with growing factions that intend to defeat their kingdom.
PLOT:

It's 1823, and Nanisca (VIOLA DAVIS) is the leader of the Agojie, a small army of female soldiers. Alongside the likes of Izogie (LASHANA LYNCH) and Amenza (SHEILA ATIM), their job is to protect the Kingdom of Dahomey ruled by King Ghezo (JOHN BOYEGA). He's continued the trend of those before him in selling captured enemies as slaves to the Europeans such as Portuguese slave buyer Santo (HERO FIENNES TIFFIN) who's arrived with his friend Malik (JORDAN BOLGER) who has a special connection to Dahomey.

That doesn't sit well with Nanisca who believes they should stop that practice, but she has bigger immediate worries in the form of General Migan (SIV NGESI) who's joining forces with other rival tribes in hopes of conquering Dahomey. With Izogie putting would-be Agojie recruits -- such as 19-year-old Nawi (THUSO MBEDU) -- through the paces, Nanisca hopes both the new and veteran soldiers will be able to hold their own against the dangerous enemy, all while contending with demons from her past.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10

There's the old saying "You learn something new every day." I don't necessarily know if that's completely accurate 24/7/365, but I do realize that sometimes you learn something old on certain days. Case in point was today's history lesson for yours truly. I sheepishly admit that when I read the brief synopsis for "The Woman King," I assumed that the African "Kingdom of Dahomey" was something like Wakanda from "The Black Panther." Meaning a fictitious place featuring fierce warriors, in this case, a band of female ones led by Viola Davis' character.

And then I decided to search to see if maybe I was onto something with that train of thought, only to have that derail into a "who knew" history lesson that informed me that Dahomey was indeed very real. Like three centuries real (the early 17th to early 20th century) in what's now known as Benin and a kingdom that became a regional powerhouse on the Atlantic Coast of Africa stemming from the European slave trade. Oh, and they had an all-female military unit known as the Dahomey Amazons to those Euro folk. As they sometimes like to say on TV, "This is their story."

And it's a pretty good one at that, even if at times it follows formula a bit too closely in telling its tale of the Agojie. Led by Davis' Nanisca, they live and train inside the palace walls where the only males present are King Ghezo (John Boyega) and the occasional eunuch assistant. Everyone else is female, and like nuns, the warriors have eschewed marriage and having children, but rather than serve God they do so for the king and the good of the kingdom.

The temporal setting is 1823 and Ghezo is living the high life stemming from selling those they've conquered and captured to European slave traders such as Santo (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) who's arrived with his buddy, the incredibly buff Malik (Jordan Bolger), who's somewhat taken aback by witnessing the whole slave thing in person.

Nanisca isn't crazy about that lucrative line of business either and would rather their kingdom export more palm oil. But that doesn't sound like any sort of decent catalyst to fuel the drama, so screenwriter Dana Stevens doesn't focus as much on that and instead provides an outside menace in the form of General Migan (a hulking Siv Ngesi) who's in cahoots with the Europeans and has a hankering for conquering Dahomey.

Thankfully for Nanisca, she isn't alone in her protection duties and has a bunch of seasoned warriors by her side -- including her close advisor Amenza (Sheila Atim) and the formidable Izogie (Lashana Lynch). The latter is in charge of training new recruits and there are a bunch here, but the story eventually settles on focusing on Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a young woman whose father has had enough of her ruining the marriages he's arranged and thus drops her off at the palace for the king. What follows is boilerplate military training material, including montages featuring sparring, challenges, and the headstrong girl butting heads with her elders.

While all of that works in the usual way, it's the only somewhat mediocre part of this film that's directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood who otherwise delivers an action-packed, exciting, and even emotionally gripping tale as the story ends up delving into Nanisca's troubled past that's turned her into who she is today. Davis is terrific in the role -- both physically in the action and showing vulnerability seeping through the tough facade -- and could earn some award love come that time of the movie season. Atim, Lynch, and Mbedu are also quite good at creating characters you end up caring about and rooting for.

I have no idea if any of them are playing real, historical figures or perhaps are inspired by the same. But if anything, "The Woman King" proves that a history lesson -- at least for yours truly -- can be an informative and entertaining experience that works on multiple levels. The film rates as a 7 out of 10.




Posted September 16, 2022


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