At the time of this writing, Viola Davis recently became the 18th EGOT—that rare category of performer who has won at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony—which takes some of the sting out of her not being nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role in The Woman King. The disappointment of her not being nominated is not a race thing, as some have been arguing (four of the five nominees are white, and one is Chinese), but rather because her performance is so utterly riveting. Disappearing into the hardened body of a 19th-century African warrior, Davis is a force unleashed on the screen, heading up a full-blooded tale of conflict set against the backdrop of the slave trade that offers both a twist on the traditional male-dominated warrior-epic and a look at a part of history that Hollywood typically ignores. Sure, it plays fast and loose with some of the historical facts, but so does just about every Hollywood history lesson, something many of its critics conveniently ignore. That doesn’t necessarily make its historical elisions and distortions unproblematic, but they are more typical of the genre than not, which suggests that it is being held to a higher standard than, say, Braveheart (1995) or Gladiator (2000).Davis stars as General Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie, an all-woman warrior group that protects their West African kingdom, Dahomey, from both the Oyo, a rival kingdom, and Portuguese slave traders led by Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) who are aligned with the Oyo, who are led by General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya). The Agoyie is comprised entirely of women who have been otherwise rejected from Dahomey society, usually because they could not (or would not) be married. Thus, they are outcast warriors who spend all of their lives protecting the very society of which they cannot be part, which is essentially the underlying theme of every Western ever made. Nanisca takes under her wing a young woman named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who is offered to the Agojie by her father because she refuses to marry the wealthy, abusive older man her father selected for her. Nanisca is completely loyal to the Dahomey ruler, King Ghezo (John Boyega), who treats her with reverence and takes seriously her counsel, even as he is pulled in different directions by various factions within the kingdom.The very existence of a film like The Woman King—a historical action epic dominated by female African characters that was directed by an African-American woman (Gina Prince-Bythewood), written by two women (Dana Stevens and Maria Bello), shot by a female cinematographer (Polly Morgan), and produced primarily by women (including Cathy Schulman and Viola Davis)—is unfortunately shocking, even in these supposedly progressive times, but it is also cause for celebration. Of course, the gender of those in front of and behind the camera is meaningless if the film isn’t any good, which is certainly not the case here. The Woman King is a superior example of its genre, mixing together thrilling action setpieces and vicious battles and emotional engagement with characters who, despite their battle-hardened exteriors, are vulnerable, relatable human beings. Davis’s performance would be simply towering if those around her weren’t also so good—Thuso Mbedu’s fierce individuality and stubbornness as Nawi and Lashana Lynch’s tough, but nurturing and surprisingly humorous mentorship as the warrior Izogie—which makes all the dirt and blood and clashing steel more than just sound and fury.
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Overall Rating: (3.5)
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