Viola Davis leads an excellent cast in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s exhilarating action flick.
Gina Prince-Bythewood is unquestionably one of the most interesting directors working in Hollywood today. Since coming out with the hit sports romance Love & Basketballhis work ranges from intimate family dramas to love stories (The secret life of bees, beyond the lights) to action-packed superhero movies (The old guard). It took Prince-Bythewood seven years to release his new film, The female king, on the screen. Epic, heart-pounding and jam-packed with delicious character beats, The female king understandably feels like the culmination of Prince-Bythewood’s work so far. As masterful at filming stunning fight sequences as it is at extracting emotion from intimate dialogue scenes, Prince-Bythewood offers crowd-pleasers for the ages.
The female king, which opens with an exploration of the explanatory text, is set in the 1820s and tells the story of the Agojie, a band of elite female warriors who protect the King of Dahomey. Prince-Bythewood was inspired to create the film while visiting Benin, where Dahomey was located. Most Americans probably aren’t familiar with the Agojie, but it’s immediately apparent that they were the actual women who inspired guard Dora Milaje’s inclusion in Marvel’s Black Panther.
The film crackles with energy from the first moment the Agojie appears, crawling silently out of the grass before destroying a gang of slavers with machetes. The female king easily boasts some of the best fight choreography of the 21st century. The film’s fight sequences push the PG-13 rating to its absolute limits, as the women draw blood with knives, guns, spears, ropes, explosives and even sharp fingernails. Prince-Bythewood avoids the pitfalls many recent superhero films have fallen into, and all of the battles are as visually easy to follow as they are exhilarating. Cheers and applause could frequently be heard during this reviewer’s screening. Just when you think the Agojie can’t outdo themselves, they go to another level.
The king’s wife The screenplay, written by Dana Stevens and Maria Bello, is ultimately secondary to the exquisite action scenes, but it gets the job done. It’s really hard to go wrong when a movie has a cast as superb as this. Legendary performer Viola Davis plays General Nanisca, leader of the Agojie and a trusted adviser to King Ghezo (John Boyega). Ghezo, who seized power in a military coup that Nanisca helped lead, decided to appoint a traditional Dahomean woman King to rule alongside him, not as a romantic partner but as a leader. of state. Nanisca aspires to play this role and use her newfound power to end the slave trade in Dahomey, where Ghezo’s subjects sold other West Africans from enemy tribes to European slave traders and narrowly avoided capture.
Davis is in fine form here, which unsurprisingly makes Nanisca’s true military leaders feel authentic with his commanding presence and intense physique. She brings a sensitive twist to a subplot that is, essentially, a rape-revenge thriller. Thuso Mbedu, the star of Amazon’s underrated miniseries The Underground Railroad, plays the fiery Nawi, an unwanted girl sent to the palace as a gift for the king. Mbedu bounces back with aplomb over Davis, who is carrying more, and it’s a real joy to watch them together as they push each other. Boyega also shines as King Ghezo, bringing a touch of dry humor to the role.
Ghezo has a dozen silly wives, chief among them the vain and ambitious Shante (Jayme Lawson), who wants to snatch the title of female king for herself. The King and his wives provide some of the best laughs and costumes in the film. It’s exciting to see royal high fashion looks steeped in African history and culture instead of bland, rote Eurofantasy.
As masterful at filming stunning fight sequences as it is at extracting emotion from intimate dialogue scenes, Prince-Bythewood offers crowd-pleasers for the ages.
Overall, Prince-Bythewood makes some smart choices centered around the experiences of the West African characters. When the Portuguese slavers are led by Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) and his biracial friend Malik (Jordan Bolger), and their dialogue is captioned, centering the audience in the perspective of our black protagonists. For that reason, much of the film’s unremarkable musical score by the usually excellent Terence Blanchard left something to be desired, especially when contrasted with the lively, punchy Dahomean music to which the characters play and dance to.
But a quibble over the music is one of the only quibbles to make this excellent, fast-paced film. The duration of two hours and twenty minutes passes quickly, thanks once again to the excellent work of the whole. Rounding out the cast are stage-stealers Lashana Lynch as Izogie, Nawi’s hilarious mentor, and theater actress Sheila Atim as Amenza, Nanisca’s right-hand man. The two women bring plenty of humor and physical prowess to the table, almost making people dream of being the stars of their own superhero franchise. It’s hard to imagine a more charismatic cast, and the female characters all have chemistry in spades.
The legendary and expansive scope of the story makes a few end-of-movie twists and turns that might have seemed awkward in other stories flow smoothly. Prince-Bythewood’s flair for romance (no one shoots like her while holding hands sexy) adds a few lighter touches to the third act, as the stakes get dire and the body count rises. This film benefits from having a black female director at the helm. The brief sexual violence is captured in an empathetic and reflective style. It was also refreshing to see how well-lit even the nighttime battle scenes were, as black actors are often poorly lit compared to their white co-stars in other films.
The female king will make you leave the exalted theater. There’s not a dull moment, and the final battle is on the edge of your seat, not to be missed. It seems rare to see an exciting action epic that isn’t based on a pre-existing franchise or other intellectual property these days. This movie harkens back to classics like Braveheart or The Patriot while simultaneously utilizing a little-seen part of the story. It’s a movie that has something for everyone. Prince-Bythewood’s seven-year bet has paid off.
The Woman King is now playing in theaters.