Empowering, action-packed, and overly familiar, The Woman King is a resounding “meh” echoed through the chambers of historical biopics. The most significant dramatic moments land more like a mosquito bite than a bee sting. If you’ve been on the Rotten Tomatoes page for The Woman King, you’ve probably read the term “crowd pleaser” a lot, which couldn’t ring more true. That’s not to say the movie isn’t genuine in its creation or sentiment. Unlike the Bravehearts of the world, there’s a pulse in the material that isn’t sliced at jugular with hatred. TWK celebrates a moment of triumph in African history, unlike most pictures that revolve around the horrors they faced. But with the blood removed, the artificiality of Hollywood can’t help but stab its way in through the narrative.
The Woman King is a film that connects spiritually to pictures like The Last of the Mohicans, or Braveheart, playing as the love child to classic epics. The picture revolves around the Dahomey Kingdom in Western Africa. Its greatest warrior Nanisca (Viola Davis), isn’t recognized for her talents. For being a woman, she can never be granted the rank of King.
Although titled The Woman King, the film is really about Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), whose magnificent performance (let alone for a minor) is left to carry much of the film’s weight. Nawi is Naniska’s padawan. One who’s from a background more privileged than her fellow trainees. For this, Nanisca pushes Nawi further than her other students. However, there’s far more to the master and apprentice than we initially understand. The more the two learn from one another, the more they grow to rely on each other during futile times.
The plot of TWK is recognizable from any epic from the past. When revelations are made to shock an audience, I rolled my eyes. During a critical moment in the plot, Nanisca says, “it was me,” regarding a recurring nightmare she was having. Before delivering “it was me,” there’s an excessive pause as if most people won’t guess what she will say. There are a lot of moments like that which can be predictable. Being able to guess every plot point before they even happen isn’t exhilarating cinema for my taste.
Still, the relationship between Nanisca and Nawi is strong enough to hold my interest, even if it may have been mildly. Beyond combat training, the two share a bond that cuts deeper than the chains the Europeans attempt to enslave the Dahomeys with. Despite the European settlers attempting to conquer Dahomey’s kingdom, things aren’t as clear-cut between hero and villain as they may seem.
King Ghezo (John Boyega) allowed the Settlers to sell enslaved people in return for profit to keep their land prosperous. However, he’s not entirely happy with his choice. Afraid to take on the conquerers who threaten Dahomey’s land, Nanisca decides to defend the kingdom with the help of Nawi. The moral conflict of Dahomey selling their own kind is an honest angle to take. Before approaching the film, I was a bit hesitant regarding the film’s validity. Scrolling through YouTube comments is never a good idea, yet sometimes, you can run into a few nuggets of wisdom you aren’t expecting to read.
According to a particular user, Dahomey was a brutal kingdom people who profited by selling their people. To confirm the comment wasn’t just coming out of the back pocket of a closeted racist Xbox gamer, I dug around online to see if there was any truth to the user’s words. Surprisingly there was. At least, according to Britannica.com.
Walking into the movie, I was curious to see if such a gray ethical matter would be examined. It was, but with a touch of that classic Hollywood storytelling. Nawi falls for Malik (Jordan Bolger), a man of mixed race who, just so happens, is a settler. With his reservations about the slave trade put into question, Malik doesn’t know who to stay loyal to. His fellow Europeans, or the people who they torture and kill. It’s the classic, “I’m a good guy who’s working for the bad guys,” forbidden love story that plays more like Attack of The Clones than Romeo and Juliet.
When the dust settles and our heroes emerge victorious, The Woman King sets out what it aims to do. Bring pride to a people that suffered greatly. Slavery wasn’t a proud moment, but some did not surrender to tyranny. The Woman King is worth a gander for bringing light to a dark time, plus a decent pace and well-developed characters to boot. The conventions might be too familiar for my liking, but if it works, it works, and indeed the movie will work for a wide audience. Watching the movie with an audience not entirely comprised of critics gives one a real sense of how people will react to the film.
The plot twists were met with the gasps you’d expect, and the bits of levity got the chuckles they were looking for. At the film’s end, many women in the audience echoed the battle cries of the Dahomey. If it makes people feel good, who am I not to say the movie isn’t good enough? It’s a crowd pleaser, but it comes at the cost of realism. With the blood removed despite people getting chopped up like an outback steakhouse cow, there’s close to no gore.
I suppose showing all the gruesome detail of a Dahomey’s stick slicing someone’s guts open would take away from the heroic image Director Gina Prince-Bythewood is going for. Indeed, films aren’t made to be accurate. That’s what journalism is for (mostly), but the lack of blood paints a fictitious, choreographed image in the combat, which is the film’s main draw. With every poster displaying Viola Davis holding a gigantic machete over her head, you’d expect the action to dominate. Thank goodness the story and characters work because the action leaves much to be desired. Not only because it lacks realistic graphic detail, but its editing is all over the place, often leaving me disoriented, not understanding who stabbed who. From the story to the action, everything feels okay. And that’s what The Woman King feels like, a very okay movie.