The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema] - THE WOMAN KING | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Cinema] - THE WOMAN KING

the woman king review
The general of a legion of female warriors seeks to change her king's view of slavery.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Starring: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Jordan Bolger

the woman king poster

If you're a woman over a certain age your choice of roles in Hollywood are somewhat limited. For aging black actresses, a specific role has developed in recent years, that of the hero's tough bureaucratic boss. Viola Davis inhabited this role in the recent Suicide Squad movies, but with The Woman King she gets to play the hero while her closed-minded boss is a young man.

Davis is Nanisca, the general of the Agojie, a battalion of women warriors who serve under the king of Dahomey in 1823 West Africa. The king is the young Ghezo (John Boyega), a Hugh Hefner type who surrounds himself with beautiful women while lounging around in his dressing gown. Ghezo makes a living for himself and his kingdom by aiding the slave trade, selling captured opponents to Brazilian slave traders. Nanisca believes that rather than selling other Africans into slavery, Dahomey should exploit its natural resources like palm oil, but Ghezo is having none of it.

the woman king review

Somewhat torn between a sense of loyalty and a disapproval of her leader's philosophy, Nanisca nevertheless keeps her head down and gets on with the business at hand, that of preparing a new crop of young women to become warriors in the battle against the neighbouring Oyo Empire, who have been raiding Dahomey for their own slaves to sell to the Brazilians.

Hollywood has given us scores of historical epics down the years, but never one set in this part of the world, likely because doing so opens up the old wounds of slavery. The Woman King finds itself in a difficult spot. How do you make a movie that pays tribute to a group of women while also acknowledging that they were engaged in a reprehensible practice? It's a question the film struggles to answer, and what is ostensibly an action epic probably isn't the best medium to delve into such a messy area. The movie asks you to overlook the fact that the Agojie are involved in slavery themselves, because their form of slavery isn't quite as bad as that of their enemies. That's not really how it works though, is it? Slavery is slavery.

the woman king review

The Woman King should probably have been centred around its heroine's attempts to convince her leader to end his role in the slave trade, something the movie only barely touches upon. Instead it focusses on soapy subplots that revolve around clunky revelations and improbable romances. Surprisingly, Davis doesn't get half as much screen time as you might expect, which is a shame as the movie gives her a chance to add an extra dimension to the school principal persona African-American actresses of a certain age have found themselves pigeon-holed into in recent years. Watching her convince as someone who could be both a tough leader and a sensitive mentor, I couldn't help think what a great Star Trek captain Davis would make.

Davis shares much of the screen time with South African actress Thuso Mbedu, who plays Nawi, a young recruit who initially serves as the audience's way into this world but then gets lumped with a romantic subplot that feels like it belongs in a Young Adult movie. A dashing mixed-race Brazilian trader, Malik (Jordan Bolger), is looking to discover his African roots and falls for Nawi in the process. Their scenes jar against the more serious political themes, and it often feels like the movie is desperate to soften its edges in order to become a future high school staple. Far more involving are the scenes between Nawi and Izogie (an effortlessly cool Lashana Lynch), a tough warrior who forms a sisterly bond with the teenager.

the woman king review

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood does a far better job with The Woman King's action scenes than those in her previous effort, The Old Guard, constructing them in a manner that leaves us in no doubt that these women could take down much bigger men with their physical prowess. I'm not sure if the fighting style is accurate, as it comes off more like 21st century Hollywood than 19th century Africa, with moves straight out of the recent Wonder Woman movies. While surprisingly brutal, the action scenes are oddly bloodless; even when we're watching someone get repeatedly beaten by a steel ball on a chain there isn't a drop of blood spilled and the Agojie emerge from their battles looking unfeasibly clean. A constant issue throughout the film is how characters get from point A to point B, in both narrative terms (we really need a few extra scenes to detail how some decisions are made) and geographical - a day's walk for one group seems to take several days on horseback for another while the three main parties keep popping into each other's territories like neighbours borrowing milk.

Unfortunately there's no way to make a movie like The Woman King in Hollywood without having its characters speak English, but the use of the language really does undermine the film's anti-imperialist themes. Not only do the African characters speak English but they use European weights and measures in their speech. There's one particular scene that falls flat when a Brazilian slaver begins speaking in subtitled Portuguese to Ghezo, who commands his guest to "speak in my language." What would have been a badass line if spoken in Ghezo's native tongue just feels queasy, a reminder that ultimately history is written by the winners and the winners now run Hollywood.

The Woman King
 is in UK/ROI cinemas from October 4th.

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