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The Woman King (2022)

There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned Hollywood blockbuster to really make for an enjoyable evening at the cinema. Fight scenes, women in peril, countless evil enemies and the right amount of nudity to maintain a PG-13 rating: “The Woman King” has it all. And better still, it uses this standard blockbuster template in an entirely fresh setting: the kingdom of Dahomey in west Africa in 1823. It’s plagued by the slave trade, where innocent villagers are kidnapped and sold to disgusting white men, here personified by the cocky Brazilian Santo (Hero Fiennes Tiffin). The new king, Ghezo (South London’s favorite son John Boyega, getting to do something different from his previous blockbuster fare and have a great time doing so), has pledged to stop selling his own people, if nothing else. And he has the manpower to put his money where his mouth is. Well, womanpower, actually. He has an elite squad of soldiers, the Agojie, all women, and all the stuff of nightmares.

Their general is Nanisca (Viola Davis), an experienced and terrifying warrior who must be good, as she hasn’t been a young woman for some time. The movie, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, opens with her personally leading a raid on a nearby village to rescued some of her kidnapped kinsmen, and this fight scene sets the tone for much of what’s to come: rip-roaring action, almost entirely fought with spears, knives and machetes (guns and horses belong only to white men, and the quislings who collaborate with them). But after the battle some new recruits must be trained, among them Nawi (Thuso Mdebu, a glorious discovery), whose father gives her to the Agojie after she refuses to marry a man who can’t even wait until the introductions are finished before slapping her in the face. As Nawi learns more about her new sisterhood, including Nanisca’s right hand Amenza (Sheila Atim) and the extraordinary Izogie (Lashana Lynch, more on whom later), the audience learns more about the power struggles in and around the kingdom. Ghezo has eight wives, head of whom is Shante (Jayme Lawson), none of whom respect the Agojie and don’t hesitate to tell Nanisca this to her face. Nawi’s trouble with authority has an outsize impact; upon sneaking out one afternoon she encounters the handsome Malik (Jordan Bolger), Santo’s right hand and the mixed-race son of an enslaved woman from Dahomey. But his information, which Nawi dutifully passes on, enables Nanisca to surprise the bad guys with some sudden moves of her own.

The audience is surprised too – director Gina Prince-Bythewood has matured into a director of the first water who handles the complex action and the subtleties of human feeling with ease. Dana Stevens wrote the screenplay (based on a story by herself and Maria Bello, the actress, who most memorably owned the bar in “Coyote Ugly,” quite the career pivot) based on a lesser-known true history – although other reviews are complaining about the historical accuracy, for a blockbuster of this type it serves its purpose. (It’s also incredibly infuriating that once again women critics seem happy to hold historical movies by women to a higher standard of accuracy than they do those by men.)

What is most keenly interesting as subtext – other than Gersha Phillips’s beautiful and practical costumes – is how the technology of the times are reflected in the battles they fight. The first test Nawi and the other recruits must pass to be full Agojie is nothing more than passing barefoot through a thickly thorned hedge. The Agojie view guns with contempt, as killing with them takes no skill – there’s a lovely sequence, shot with grace by Polly Morgan, where Nawi ties her knife to the end of a rope and uses it “Mortal Kombat”-style on the battlefield. But what four of them can do with their machetes is enough to curdle anyone’s blood.

And speaking of blood running cold, Ms. Lynch as Izogie passes through a battlefield like a commuter changing trains, not even breaking her stride as she uses her machete to dispatch her enemies. Izogie’s magnificent and not-at-all veiled contempt for those beneath her, which includes her own feelings of pain, is utterly spectacular and an absolute inspiration. One man she kills dies with a look of admiring bewilderment on his face, as if he is astonished that death has come to him in Izogie’s beautiful, furious form. But it’s also made clear that her excellence stems from deep childhood trauma rooted in sexual violence, and several other members of the Agojie have similar stories. This frankness about rape and its after-effects is unusual in a Hollywood movie, and it’s really refreshing to see a blockbuster of this size be respectful of this pain, make space for it, and then use that hurt as the bedrock for doing something good.

But it’s Ms. Davis’s weary but firm insistence on always doing the right thing that carries the movie. She is as much of an action star here as Harrison Ford or Sylvester Stallone ever was, and seeing her size up a battlefield as well as her individual opponents shows that her Nanisca was born to be a weapon, but she has worked to become a strategy. The cheerful banter of the girlish warriors, ululating their support for one another, under Nanisca’s keen eye is as good a demonstration as “Full Metal Jacket” about how an army is built, but with the opposite mood. In the world of “The Woman King” pain is not something to eat, or embrace; it’s something to conquer and learn to disregard. This is a lesson more cogs in the war machine would do well to learn. The main lesson taught in this year’s other military blockbuster “Top Gun: Maverick” was “act, don’t think.” The lesson in “The Woman King” is that with the right tools, an ant can take down an elephant, and no one should ever give away their power. Which ethos would you prefer to be worth a billion dollars?


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