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  • Jonny Diaz

All Hail The Woman King

Viola Davis in the titular role | Sony TriStar

A stirring action epic in the mold of Braveheart, Gladiator, and The Last of the Mohicans, Gina Prince-Bythewood's The Woman King often feels like a deliberate throwback to the historical action epics of the 1990s—but even a cursory glance demonstrates its groundbreaking nature. At once conventional and innovative, The Woman King both epitomizes and shatters the notion that they just don't make 'em like they used to.

Set in the early 19th century, The Woman King centers on the West African Kingdom of Dahomey (located in present-day Benin) at a precarious moment. As newly crowned King Ghezo (John Boyega, never better) considers all-out war with the neighboring Ojo Empire and their Portuguese slaver allies, the imposing General Nanisca (Viola Davis, in full action star mode) and her lieutenants, Igozie (Lashana Lynch, fantastic) and Amenza (Sheila Atim, striking) train the next generation of Agojie warriors: the Dahomey Kingdom's elite all-female legion of fighters. Among those new trainees is Nawi (newcomer Thuso Mbedu, impressive), a young woman abandoned at the palace by her adoptive father.

Best known for her work in romantic dramas, Prince-Bythewood made her first foray into action filmmaking with The Old Guard for Netflix in 2020. The Woman King represents a significant level up in terms of scope and scale, and Prince-Bythewood handles herself with aplomb. She does so in part by building an impressive team of creative collaborators, many of them women and/or people of color. Dahomey itself is rendered in gorgeous detail: Akin McKenzie's production design, Gersha Phillips's costumes, and Louisa Anthony and Babalwa Mtshiselwa's makeup and hairstyling are all top notch.

But it's Polly Morgan's camerawork and Terilyn Shropshire's editing that are perhaps the film's most impressive technical feats. Much has been written about the historical and technological limitations of capturing black skin on film and the ways that modern cinematographers have worked to design lighting specifically for black actors. Morgan unequivocally succeeds on that front, lighting her actors' range of dark skin tones exquisitely by both sunlight and firelight. And Shropshire's crisp editing keeps all the action legible and builds a real sense of geography in each combat sequence—a feature too often missing from the average blockbuster.

Despite the impressive craft and well-choreographed action sequences, however, the film's real success is built on Prince-Bythewood's mastery of tone and the emotional weight that she gives the story and its characters. The Woman King returns to the main theme of her entire filmography: how much and how far people (almost always women, and usually women of color) are willing to go to achieve excellence in their given discipline, and whether the sacrifices they make in their personal relationships are worth it.

All of that might be for naught though, if it weren't for the performance at the film's center. Long considered one of our finest dramatic stage and screen actresses, Viola Davis reveals a whole new dimension here, firmly establishing herself as a bonafide action star. She cuts an imposing figure with her bruising physicality and brooding stillness, but its those eyes—deep pools of bottomless emotion—that make her a uniquely magnetic presence. It's a towering performance that stands among the finest of her lauded career, and for that reason alone, The Woman King is a star vehicle that demands to be seen on the big screen.

The Woman King is in theaters now.


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