In going into “The Woman King,” a big-hearted action-epic whose major challenge is being sincere and historical while fulfilling its blockbuster requirements, you might feel some hesitation. Especially in a cinematic landscape that prizes broad statements on race over sturdy storytelling. You might wonder how Prince-Bythewood can shape a tale centering the Agojie warriors—an all-woman group of soldiers sworn to honor and sisterhood—hailing from the West African kingdom of Dahomey, when one considers their hand in perpetuating the transatlantic slave trade. It’s a towering task approached by Prince-Bythewood and screenwriter Dana Stevens with gentle sensitivity, and a fierce desire to show Black women as the charters of their own destiny.
The film begins with flair: A group of men lounge at the center of a field by a campfire. They hear rustling in the tallgrass; they see a flock of birds fly away on a breeze. Suddenly a menacing Viola Davis playing Nanisca, the world-weary Agojie general, emerges from the grass armed with a machete. An entire platoon then appears behind her. The ensuing slaughter of the men (the women in the village are left unharmed), is soaked in delirious gore, and is part of this warrior ensemble’s mission to free their imprisoned kin. Nanisca, however, loses so many comrades in the process that she decides to train a new batch of recruits.
After the thrilling opening battle scene, the plot to “The Woman King” can feel convoluted. But its excesses serve the film’s blockbuster goals. A defiant teenager, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), is offered up as a gift to the young King Ghezo (John Boyega) by her domineering father, who is frustrated with his obstinate daughter’s refusal to marry her many suitors. Nawi, however, never makes it to the King, as the unflinching yet fun warrior Izogie (a phenomenal Lashana Lynch), sees Nawi’s resistance as a strength, and enlists her in Nanisca’s training. Being part of the Agojie promises freedom to all involved, but not to those they conquer. The defeated are offered as tribute to the draconian Oyo Empire, who then deal their fellow Africans as slaves to Europeans in exchange for guns. It’s a circle of oppression that the guilt-ridden Nanisca wants the King to break. In the meantime, a dream has haunted Nanisca, and the disobedient Nawa, who struggles with upholding some of Agojie clan’s strict requirements, particularly the “No Men” part. It might be the key to what ails her.