For many of us, in and out of film festivals, there can be a desperate crave for the new, especially within the realm of the mainstream. The overwhelming glut of films that offer yet more of the same continue to dominate the marketplace and so when something provides a fresh concept, perspective or setting within a big studio framework, it can feel like a thrilling left turn on a road that too often feels boringly straightforward.
The slow crawl of diversity that’s allowed people other than the straight white male majority to lead and usher in big budget stories that have either never been told or have been told through the same standard lens has allowed us to revel in the newness it’s frequently provided. Recently, Dan Trachtenberg’s nifty Predator prequel Prey gave us an almost all-Indigenous American cast and an Indigenous female lead, the first for a franchise film of that scale and one of the many reasons it felt like such a triumph. And here at the Toronto film festival, on the same night that Billy Eichner premiered his gay romantic comedy Bros (the first time a studio has released a film with an all-queer cast), Viola Davis unleashes her “magnum opus”, period epic The Woman King, a rare $50m-budgeted action movie led by Black women.
It tells the story of the Agojie, an all-female troop of warriors who fought for the west African Dahomey kingdom for centuries, violently and effectively taking on men who threatened and underestimated them. The film takes place in the 19th century, as danger encroaches not just from white slavers but from competing empires, many of them working in tandem, causing general Nanisca (Davis) to urge King Ghezo (John Boyega, having fun as a sleek polygamist) to reconsider his strategy, selling less of their people and more of their natural resources. To prepare for the inevitable battle ahead, the Agojie also takes on a new batch of trainees, including local girl Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), spurned by her adoptive parents for rejecting marriage, now finding home within a group of women who also have no place for the gendered shackles that society at large wants to place upon them.
As new as the film might feel in its positioning and telling of a pocket of history that has never reached a canvas quite as epic, there’s a robustly old-fashioned feel to Gina Prince-Bythewood’s mainstream matinee movie, the director admitting she found inspiration from films such as Braveheart, Gladiator and The Last of the Mohicans. It feels like the kind of splashy studio tentpole that would have been a hit in the 90s before such budgets were reserved for franchise films with colons in the title. It’s handsomely made and intricately designed, a big movie reliant on a big team, and in an age of downsized streaming projects that look as if they were made in a parking lot it’s rewarding to feel so immersed in such a carefully realised world.
Prince-Bythewood combines her experience of crafting smart and involving melodramas, such as 2000’s Love and Basketball and 2014’s frustratingly under-seen Beyond the Lights and her more recently acquired action skillset from 2020’s The Old Guard, to make something that pleases a large crowd without pandering. I’d say the combination between action and drama could have benefitted from a little more of the former, with a large middle section that’s in need of some more fight scenes, an exhilarant initial tease of the women in battle making us want a great deal more. When it does come at the end, it’s brutally effective and precisely choreographed with some inventively gnarly acrobatic kills although a few too many overly digital, uncanny valley movements that distract from a group of actors all showing off their A-grade training.
At times, the script from City of Angels and Safe Haven writer Dana Stevens (strangely based on a story from actor Maria Bello), stuffs the package a little too tightly (a romantic subplot feels somewhat superfluous, while stretching the ensemble of warriors to such a large size means that some are inevitably shortchanged) but it mostly moves along smoothly at a fair lick, a propulsive audience movie designed to entertain above all else. When Hollywood has decided on rare occasions to show any part of African history, it’s usually for prestige, dramas of slavery and subjugation, and it’s refreshing to see The Woman King told without awards in mind but box office, ambitiously aiming to beat the boys at a game they’ve mostly played against themselves.
It might not be Davis’s magnum opus in terms of her greatest performance (her character is in need of a little bit more depth outside of her need for combat) but she has a dominant movie star swagger here that makes it a major step for someone who’s rarely been allowed to show it off on such scale. She fights with the same tenacity with which she acts and her confidence on the battlefield makes one hope this won’t be her last action movie (a brief Neeson-esque foray into looking, finding and killing would not be a bad thing). Her warriors are equally adept, including a ferocious Lashana Lynch and a captivating Sheila Atim, whose The Underground Railroad co-star Mbedu also makes a bold impression, allowed the broadest emotional range of the movie and making the very most of it, stealing much attention away from the bigger names surrounding her.
The Woman King is a sturdy, rousing piece of studio entertainment that makes both the new feel old and the old feel new.
The Woman King is screening at the Toronto film festival and will be released in US cinemas on 16 September and in the UK on 7 October