Historical epics kick ass if they enliven the viewer, teach them a few things, and feature a lead performance that gives the entire production a backbone. “The Woman King” checks all those boxes and adds something else to the equation: a thrilling ensemble that not only supports the lead, yet gives the entire film and pace an extra level.
Ladies and gents, the hype is real about Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new film, which runs at a bristling two hours and 15 minutes, yet never feels like a watch-checking endeavor. Some films bloat up the run time in the hopes of something abstract, which was thrown against the wall late in the script or production, stands out or clicks. “The Woman King” doesn’t need the extra push, thriving on a timely and empowering story.
Viola Davis’s General Nanisca was the leader of the Kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most powerful states of Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nanisca, along with her intricately trained army called Agojie, wards off evil invaders such as the Ghezo that wish to destroy the all-female unit of warriors and their way of life.
Inspired by true events, Prince-Bythewood’s film zeroes in on a time where Nanisca finds her tortured past colliding with a violent future with the arrival of young Nawi (the excellent Thuso Mbedu), an ambitious warrior-to-be who gets dropped at the door of Nanisca.
Set in a time where European slave trading was kicking up and the fight for land was becoming deadlier by the day, General Nanisca and her troops held the line for their King (John Boyega, in one of his best roles yet). All the while, these powerful women stuffed away their darkest secrets and inhibitions to unite as a collective force.
Believe me when I tell you that “The Woman King” delivers the action goods, along with the thought-provoking horrors and actions from that time period. Davis has delivered a wide range of towering performances, but Nanisca asks more of the actress than I believe she has given yet in her acting career. These women aren’t built like Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman; they are highly trained, athletic, and lean muscle-bound capable of any fighting style.
Davis brings the A-list award-worthy power to Nanisca, but the physical transformation is impressive. She’s not alone. Lashana Lynch, who stole scenes in “No Time To Die” and “Captain Marvel,” is a force to reckon with as a high-ranking Agojie warrior. She takes young Nawi under her wing, and trains her for battle. The tall and imposing Sheila Atim gives extra weight to the role of Nanisca’s second in command.
Everybody in the main cast gets their moment to shine, but it’s Davis and Boyega who really stand out. If you took them out of the movie, it wouldn’t be as strong as it is with them. Boyega’s role is built on restraint and sage authority, while Davis breaks Nanisca down and builds her flame back up over the course of the movie.
The film is shot impeccably well, scored passionately, and gives the viewer something to savor as they leave the theater. As tough and sad as the tale can get at times (anything involving slavery will do that), there is a very cinematic showdown at the end, one that is satisfying and fits the rest of the movie.
If you like rousing power-paced historical action adventures, “The Woman King” gets the job done. Don’t wait as long as I did to see this one.