"The Woman King" TIFF Review
Touted as the story of the “real black panthers,” Sony Pictures’ The Woman King aims for much more than just Hollywood showmanship. It wants to be an inspirational true story of the African warriors that stood up to the European powers that sought to colonize and enslave them. Of course, the real story of these warriors is much more complex, as they actually fought to protect their own slave trade. But if you want to pick apart this movie for historical inaccuracy, then you’d have to pick apart every movie within the genre, and that would take an eternity. And to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, the plot synopsis does state that it is “a historical epic that is based in an alternate history of The Kingdom of Dahomey,” which means you should leave your quibbles at the box office.
Viola Davis stars as the General Nanisca of the Dahomey warriors, one of the only African kingdoms to feature women as part of the armed forces. We first see them engaging a rival tribe, the Oyo, in which they attain a decisive victory because of their skill and tactics. Although their feud has been going on for centuries, both Dahomey and the Oyo are being instigated by the European colonial powers that seek to bolster their slave trade. To avoid selling their own, each of the tribes raids the other, selling off their prisoners as slaves (regardless of gender or age). It’s a bloody business that King Ghezo of Dahomey no longer wants to be a part of. But the only way to stop the trade would be to wipe out the Oyo, which is nothing short of a tall order considering their superior numbers and technology.
The film’s analysis of the slave trade is far better than most tonally deft Hollywood epics. The Dahomey are the heroes of our story, but they aren’t without their misgivings. But while the introspection is good, it’s also not good enough. The central conflict is resolved too cleanly without regard to the bigger picture. Sure, the white slavers are killed and the people are freed, but are we really led to believe that’ll be the end of all of this?
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood does craft some spectacular action setpieces, each highlighting the physical prowess of the Dahomey Amazons. Swords, spears, muskets, and even sharpened fingernails are used by the women to vanquish their enemies. The PG-13 rating is pushed to its limits, with only a few rapid cuts away from the fatal blows keeping us from the adults-only territory.
That level of top-tier craftsmanship also appears in nearly every aspect of the film’s production. An eye-popping color palette coats King Ghezo’s palace and the traditional costumes of the warriors. And Terence Blanchard’s (Spike Lee’s go-to composer) triumphant score gives each scene that little extra boost it needs to get over the edge.
It’s just a shame that the technical prowess of the film couldn’t bleed over into the script (written by Dana Stevens and Maria Bello), which constantly throws a wet blanket each time things start to heat up. Along with the simplification of slavery, we also get soap opera-level twists about the character’s lineage and a forced love story between a female warrior and a down-with-the-cause European. It’s in these moments you’re reminded this movie cost $50 million to produce and needs to pull out every trick in the book to appeal to all audiences.
At least the acting covers most of the script’s problems. As expected, Viola Davis crushes her role as the stern warrior leader. Lashana Lynch carries over her great comedic timing from No Time to Die as the second-in-command, Izogie. And Thuso Mbedu, who plays the audience surrogate, Nawi, does well at handling the film’s heavier moments.
If not for its weak script, The Woman King could have been one of the best action movies of 2022. But even for all its faults on the page, there’s no denying the power of what it accomplishes on the screen.