British theatrical talents Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim shine alongside Viola Davis in the forceful reckoning of The Woman King
“Fighting is not magic. It is a skill. We’ll see if you have any.”
It’s often the way, we fall in love with acting talent nurtured on British stages and their stars shine so brightly we end up losing them to Hollywood. Not only that, The Woman King manages to snaffle two of them – the equally marvellous Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim – and given this unique opportunity to feature in a black women-led big-budget action thriller, both rise masterfully to the challenge alongside the garlanded Viola Davis and newcomer Thuso Mbedu to create a rip-roaring good time.
The Woman King centres on the 19th-century west African kingdom of Dahomey (in what is now known as Benin) which somewhat remarkably had a hugely respected all-female warrior unit known as the Agojie, in charge of keeping on top of the complex intertwinings of tribal warfare and the slave trade, each side having a habit of selling off prisoners of war into servitude. General Nanisca trains up new generations of warriors but the arrival of the precocious Nawi triggers something powerful, just as Portuguese slave traders arrive to stir up trouble for business.
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film is somewhat old-school in its approach, echoes of historical action classics ring out but this is very much its own thing too, as Terence Blanchard’s Afro-centric music makes definitively clear, strong Black women being given the chance to tell their own stories. And from the outset, with a truly iconic guerilla attack and through the blistering final battle sequence, it is often absolutely thrilling to watch. It should be said, the film does sag in the middle though.
Davis is gripping as the war-weary but still fiercely committed Nanisca, Lynch and Atim are superb as her loyal deputies Izogie and Amenza, and Mbedu astonishes in her film debut as the strong-willed Nawi, although I do kinda wish Maria Bello and Dana Stevens’ story didn’t veer quite so much into melodrama as far as Nawi is concerned. Together they tackle the generational effect of trauma and the all-encompassing mysogyny around them, and brush up against the complicated history around the truth of the brutality of African complicity with the slave trade. Bracingly good.