'The Woman King' review: a larger-than-life African story told in Hollywood fashion

The film marked its regional premiere at Roxy Cinemas, Dubai Hills Mall, on Tuesday

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Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King is a classic historical epic in many respects.

The Woman King

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Stars: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Sheila Atim, Lashana Lynch, John Boyega 

Rating: 3/5

The film, screened for the first time in the region at Roxy Cinemas at Dubai Hills Mall on Tuesday, deals with broad emotions. Notions of camaraderie, patriotism, treachery and tradition are amplified, power structures are challenged, and forbidden love sprouts in the fringes of the bloodshed.

What gives The Woman King its refreshing edge, however, is its subject matter, time period, stellar cast and choreography.

Set in the 1800s, the film is inspired by the elite female soldiers known as the Agojie, protectors of the West African kingdom of Dahomey. The kingdom ruled what is today Benin between 1600 and the early 1900s when the country was colonised by the French.

Every historical epic needs a central, larger-than-life character and star to match. As General Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie warriors, Viola Davis delivers a groundbreaking performance proving that she has yet to reveal the full gamut of her acting capabilities.

John Boyega, too, climbs new heights with his depiction of King Ghezo, who ruled the Kingdom of Dahomey from 1818 until 1859. Lashana Lynch, meanwhile, is unforgettable as the fierce and affable warrior Izogie and Thuso Mbedu’s performance as the new Agojie recruit Nawi promises a bright future for The Underground Railroad actress.

Enough can’t be said of The Woman King’s choreography either. Ritualistic dances, swordfights, training scenes and elaborate entrances elevate the film’s worldbuilding and give its pacing a rhythmic and fevered energy.

A foundational part of what makes The Woman King so captivating is that it depicts, in Hollywood grandeur, a segment of history that has long been overlooked.

Historical blockbusters can be powerful vehicles not only for entertainment, but for wider education. I don’t think I knew of William Wallace before Mel Gibson brought the Scottish revolutionary to film in Braveheart, and Ridley Scott’s epic Gladiator was instrumental in sparking a personal interest in Roman history.

The Woman King will prompt similar if not more energetic reactions. It has all the swashbuckling vigour and immensity of a lofty Hollywood feature, while dealing with centuries-old injustices that still reverberate today.

However, like most films of its kind, The Woman King makes plenty of historical fumbles.

Of course, anyone seeking total accuracy from the drama worlds of Hollywood is better off looking elsewhere, but The Woman King pushes the boundaries in several ways that may have it age as badly as Gladiator and Braveheart.

Whether because of problematic characters, cartoonish machismo or general melodramatic writing, those two films are pretty hard to watch today. They can’t be depended on for that immersive feeling of being truly enveloped in a historical epic. It’s a feeling to crave and a lot harder to attain when getting older.

Anyone watching Gladiator today is likely to be put off by the monotony of the characters. The film also takes liberties with Roman history. For one thing, the ending shows Maximus reinstating Rome as a republic, which was never restored.

Marcus Aurelias, also, had no plans to restore it and neither did he outlaw gladiator fights.

Braveheart's problems are vaster. For one thing, the violence is gratuitous. The final scene of Wallace's execution was also drawn out with melodrama and a touch of sadism. There were also plenty of problematic rewrites.

The Woman King also has its fair share of historical blunders.

The film has faced criticism recently for uplifting the female warriors while downplaying the Dahomey tribe’s involvement in the slave trade. A hashtag has even been created calling for the film’s boycott.

“Let’s be honest folk. It’s movie about a African tribe famous for selling slaves to Europeans that was made into a female empowerment story by two white women writers. You don’t have to be very ‘woke’ to see the problem here,” one Twitter user wrote.

“Slave traders are not heroes,” wrote another.

However, many have defended the film as well, with one person tweeting: “The movie speaks on how everyone (including African tribes) participated in the slave trade and it’s specific impact on black women. It’s a masterpiece!”

Hymar David, a journalist for Nigeria Abroad, also criticised the film as a story that wasn’t Hollywood’s to make, saying: “Again, why are Westerners telling African history using Western faces to represent historic African personalities? Why are Western accents being used to represent African voices?”

"As an anthropologist who has studied the legacies of slavery in Africa and who grew up in Benin, I argue that our approaches to internal slaveries or African participation in the slave trades must not be minimised," Dominique Somda wrote for The Conversation. "My criticism of the movie is related to the misuse of fiction. African histories are not inconsequential; they don’t deserve simple reinventions. Africans have a right to demand fair and layered representations."

The film is nevertheless every bit as rousing and sweeping as to earn the title of a historical epic, and it is one of the grandest to come out of Hollywood in years. Yet, as it is, it's hamstrung by inaccuracies that may make its time in the sun short. Longevity might not be its fate, but it has fairly impressive consequences now such as sparking conversation about the long-unexamined history of Dahomey as well as other kingdoms in Africa.

How these criticisms will affect The Woman King’s legacy remains to be seen, but complaints of miscasting and gratuitous modifications of history seem similar to the ones that haunt Gladiator and Braveheart, and those films already seem as old as the time periods they portray.

The Woman King is out now in UAE cinemas.

Updated: June 23, 2023, 12:02 PM
The Woman King

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Stars: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Sheila Atim, Lashana Lynch, John Boyega 

Rating: 3/5