Make no mistake. Wonder Woman was real. Forget about Wakanda (the fictional kingdom from Marvel’s Black Panther). The historically accurate world of The Woman King is the African super heroic universe you really want to visit.
Viola Davis (Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Fences, 2016) portrays General Nanisca, the mighty leader of an all-female army who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s with fighting skills as fierce as any history has ever seen.
At the beginning of this PG-13 rated film, when bodies pile up higher than the pyramids, but with minimal, if any, graphic violence, the Dahomey women’s army nearly wipe out a neighboring enemy who have killed and maimed many women. Returning to her kingdom with the surviving members of that village and her army, Nanisca asks for volunteers, some of them in their teens, in order to strengthen her army. She warns, “in this army women take no husband and bear no children.” Factor in rigorous physical training including briar patches and staving off brutish (and bigger) men, and it’s little wonder more than half of the would-be women warriors decide life will be a lot better in the palace—not on the battlefield.
Although not as physically strong or experienced as the enemy, the Dahomey Amazon army is fearless and smart. Nanisca and her warriors use every trick imaginable to defeat the opposition. In one climactic scene, after discovering gunpowder doesn’t need an actual gun to inflict casualties, the wily women surround an enemy camp with palm oil and homemade explosives. A lit match doesn’t distinguish between sexes.
Viola Davis delivers an Oscar worthy performance. Stunt doubles notwithstanding, the 57-year-old Davis fights like an Ultimate Fighting mixed martial artist and has a body that many women half her age would (pun intended) kill for. That said, keep an eye out for newcomers Adrienne Warren, Thuso Mbedu and Shaina West, who steal the movie portraying three young warriors Ode, Nawi and Ese. (Watch for a jaw-dropping twist a little more than halfway through the film, when Davis stumbles upon one of the young warriors in the palace baths who is there, unbeknownst to her.)
Ralph Fiennes’s nephew, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, is the only white actor with a speaking role. He plays Santo, a fledgling slave trader traveling with a mixed race Brazilian friend (Jordan Bolger), who has come to sprinkle the ashes of his late mother (who was captured and transported across the ocean as a slave) onto the land where she was was born. Bolger’s character, one of the best looking to grace the big screen this year, is aghast at the slave auctions and buys one of the captives, with whom he had earlier fallen in love.
Many people today are either unaware or conveniently forget that many African tribes were involved in the slave trading of their own people as a way to fund their armies and support lavish lifestyles. Dahomey was a major center of Africa’s slave trade, selling their prisoners primarily to the English. When General Nanisca urges Dahomey’s King Ghezo (John Boyega), to abolish the slave trade and trade gold and palm oil instead, he tells her that that there is no money for the kingdom other than that derived from slaving. “My brother sold my mother,” he says. That’s the way it’s always been.
The direction, by Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard, The Secret Life of Bees) is exceptional —with some scenes that will move you to tears. There is one scene towards the end that is so reminiscent of the scene in the movie The Color Purple, where Celie and Nettie are holding onto each other and a fence, while Mister is tearing them apart from each other, I think it was purposefully imitated. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Likewise, The Woman King’s cinematography, choreographed fight scenes, editing, and costume design are all first-rate.
Believe it or not, actress Maria Bello (most recently Special Agent Jacqueline “Jack” Sloane on NCIS), conceived the idea for this picture after visiting Benin, formerly the Republic of Dahomey, and learning about its fascinating history.
Will audiences flock to The Woman King? With word-of-mouth, Sony may have a subdued hit on their hands, as they did with Where The Crawdads Sing (although, the latter had a built-in audience of millions of people who’d read the book). But this could (and should) become a hit. People are starved for good movies in theaters and movies that are exclusively in theaters, which all of Sony movies are, for at least 45 days, as they are the only major studio without a streaming service.
The Woman King’s world debut is at the Toronto International Film Festival, Friday, September 9, 2022.
The Women King opens in theaters September 16, 2022.