Maybe it’s residual annoyance at her Oscar snub but I feel like starting this review with a nice, buttery hot take. I think I just might consider General Nanisca in The Woman King to be EGOT-winner Viola Davis’ best screen performance. Perhaps some Davis performances have loftier literary credentials (Doubt, Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). If her trademark volcanic intensity is what does it for you, maybe there have been times where she has quaked with more turmoil, when her hurricane force tears (and other more nasal-adjacent fluids) have rained down with more ferocity. Or times where she’s gotten more creative at applying her versatility to pulpy trash (Suicide Squad or, ahem, The Help). But Viola Davis’ work in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s lusciously mainstream African period piece is the one that I could wolf down a whole bowl of any time. I feel similarly about her work as Nanisca as I do about Russell Crowe’s irresistibly fun work as Ben Wade in 3:10 To Yuma. I feel about Viola Davis the way I feel about my favorite actor Paul Newman in many of his roles. In cases like these, the subtle character actor is unafraid to become a dynamic, show-stopping entertainer, and they manage to do it without sacrificing an ounce of their potent subtlety. It’s fun to watch actors this perfectly dialed in get saucy, fun roles like these because you can trust them to not go too big (a fact that puts this Davis performance full leagues above her work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). Performances like this are arguments for how we might build a better star system. I don’t mean to glibly wave away the fears that movie stars are going away; that the nature of mega-stardom is changing or losing some of its draw with audiences. But I just cannot watch any ten minutes of The Woman King and not feel a little puzzled at the idea of the big, dynamic movie star being a dying breed. Here is a 57-year old woman playing a dramatic action role and utterly igniting the screen. While playing a character you have probably never heard of, no less. Yes, the nature of who can anchor a popular blockbuster film may be in flux. But 2022 made one thing abundantly clear to me. Viola Davis is a big old movie star.
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s smartly old fashioned war epic (loosely based on true events and an engaging screenplay by Dana Stevens) is deceptively easy to describe. In 1823, the West African kingdom of Dahomey is under attack from its longtime foe, the neighboring Oyo Kingdom. Oyo pillages Dahomey’s villages for resources, the most lucrative of which are villagers to sell to slavers from Portugal, Holland and the United States of America. While the Oyo can rely on Portugal’s horses and guns to aid them, Dahomey has one blessed trump card. They have an all-woman army of mighty warriors called the Agojie. Led by General Nanisca (Viola Davis, almost effortlessly great), this band of fighters is the pride of their greateful subjects and of the new young King Ghezo (John Boyega, sharp and compelling what may be his finest work). If the basics of Dahomey fending off destruction by Oyo and the Europeans seems straightforward, some of the politics at play are a little more complex. The sad fact is that the kingdom has flourished from the slave trade. Even as Nanisca nudges King Ghezo toward less problematic exports, there is still resistance to the idea in the palace, including from the King’s ambitious head wife. Another character, the film’s co-lead, enters the palace with her own turmoil. She is a 19-=year old girl named Nawi (a titanically great South African actress named Thuso Mbedu, every inch Viola Davis’ equal) who has been disowned by her family for violently rebuffing her arranged husband. She is left at the palace gate by her father, where a high-ranking soldier named Izogie (Lashana Lynch, my favorite supporting turn of the year) brings her in with a group of orphaned girls from the neighboring village. The Woman King becomes headstrong Nawi’s story of training and maturity as she hones her skills and inevitably butts heads with the rigorous Nanisca. And, while the opening voice-over makes clear this is all heading toward a showdown with the Oyo Kingdom and its allies (led by a brutal commander with a traumatic connection to Nanisca’s past), The Woman King is just as much a character study (and a thoughtful, bite-sized primer on a little-known chapter in the history of slavery) as it is a war epic. In fact, the magic of Prince-Bythewood’s film is in how it manages to be both in such a soulfully crowd-pleasing way.
In a year full of challenging cinema, The Woman King is the film that went down the easiest. In spite of the sober subject matter of slavery, this is not a dense treatise on that terrible institution. Its lovely script is not a thing of hyperliterate poetry or daunting complexity. The Woman King is an honest crowdpleaser through and through, the sort that rarely make my top 20 each year. It is not that I don’t love having my emotions stirred or having a a big teary smile put on my face. It is that the makers of straight-shooting pleasure cruise films aren’t normally in the business of giving their movies that extra dose of something special that the very best films of the year always have. As The Woman King began, I recognized the sort of comfort flavor I normally get from live action Disney films. I sometimes find those kinds of films very pleasing (your Miracles, your October Skys) but I don’t expect them to absolutely disarm me. Even my beloved comfort gem Enchanted couldn’t crack my top 20 back in 2007 and I watched that nine times in theaters. What The Woman King has is not only a lushly observed empath that makes it much richer than almost any crowdpleaser, but a refreshing ability to turn its conventions and predictable tropes into advantages. What quickly dawned on me, and then proceeded to wow me for the rest of the movie, is that Gina Prince-Bythewood was very methodically fashioning a standard crowdpleaser, just so she could defy expectations by making it her own. It’s a movie with training montages, ass-kicking comic relief characters, a child with a destiny and an authority figure whose steely exterior gradually melts away to reveal the big heart within. Prince-Bythewood was pretending to make a by-numbers film but she wasn’t worried about sticking to the numbers. She had made one of the year’s miracle hybrids; sort of her own racially just, rollickingly fun version of Top Gun: Maverick. The Woman King is an engaging, pulse-pounding, pleasure-center-hitting action drama that doesn’t even have to settle for finding room for subtle character-centric moments of beauty. That kind of beautiful, humane shading is baked right into the recipe. It is tender, patient and rich in character from the very start. And that’s quite an accomplishment considering the movie starts with a group of impossibly awesome black ladies putting on a blistering, spear-based gymnastics showcase.
To revisit a fond old analogy, the way you make a crowdpleaser (that most simply enjoyable of films) brilliant is by making sure the simple, unvarnished ingredients are as first-rate as possible. Prince-Bythewood does not have a lot of formal trickery to fall back on here and too much clever technique would defeat the purpose of what she’s making anyway. The cinematic song she is putting together doesn’t call for cerebral noodling. It is a song of delicious, fist-pumping power chords. But Prince-Bythewood makes those chords infectious and she strums each one with an emotional clarity that spins basic flax into idiosyncratic gold. She and her cast belt this beautiful song of family and freedom out with the raucous joy of a punk anthem. And really, as much as I think the script is terrific in all its humor, fire and heart, it is the performers who make The Woman King such a cathartic triumph. I have already sung the praises of Viola Davis’ canny blending of movie star pop and detailed character shading, but I count no less than five award-worthy pieces of work in the film (and yes, all unrecognized by America’s most prominent awards body). Lashana Lynch’s fiercely funny Izogie may get most of the film’s most hilarious lines, but her best-of-the-year supporting turn does not even need those laugh lines to endearing. Lynch makes deliciously entertaining and revealing choices even when she is not saying anything. Sheila Atim’s Amenza is the calm and and beautifully steady yin to Lynch’s dynamic yang. As the audience surrogate Nawi, Thuso Mbedu is the most lovable and blazing film debut of 2022. In a film that is about making old fashioned story beats feel powerful and new, Mbedu is basically the avatar of everything Gina Prince-Bythewood’s deceptively direct powerhouse of a movie is doing right. And let’s have a heartfelt cheer for John Boyega. Finally freed from the Disney Star Wars films, he delivered the best work of his career as a conflicted British black police cadet in Steve McQueen’s Red, White and Blue (part of his phenomenal Small Axe miniseries) in 2020. And now he has a performance to challenge that one as his best. Like Viola Davis, Boyega is a natural matinee idol with character actor gravitas. He uses his boundless movie star charm to endear us to a largely decent but very opportunistic young king who is still uncertain what his kingdom’s best interests are. It’s one more way that The Woman King’s mostly familiar rollercoaster manages to find welcome twists of spontaneity, nuance and color.
What gives The Woman King a depth under its mainstream gloss is maybe just a simple matter of what it chooses to center. Even in stories we have seen before, there are things happening in the background that don’t always get focused on. Here we have a broadly enjoyable and heartfelt war movie about women finding agency in a patriarchal world. “You will be paid for your work. Your opinions will be heard,” Nanisca assures her new recruits. We also get a movie with a sweet and sincere focus on mothers and daughters and unorthodox families. The Woman King doesn’t need to rewrite the rules of the big tent crowdpleaser because it is really more about expanding what the broadly appealing crowdpleaser epic can be. Prince-Bythewood directs with a softly forthright empathy. You can sense the care she has for her characters and you start to think how rare it is that a mostly female cast gets to play out this kind of grand story. And then you reflect on how even more infinitesimally rare it is for an all-black cast of mostly women to get a movie like this. And that cast pays off Prince-Bythewood’s confidence in them by delivering what is probably the best ensemble of a stacked film year. And so, like so much brilliant black entertainment through the years, we have something that can be enjoyed by literally any person on the planet. A piece of pop art to inspire and delight and move people from any demographic. The Woman King is a film for everyone, so long as they like things that are vivacious, soulful and infectiously fun. But it is only right to acknowledge the wealth of black talent that made it and to say that it belongs to them; to highlight what a special piece of work this must be for a black person hoping to see themselves up on screen. To any black person hoping to see black people on screen being impressive and funny and smart and thoroughly awesome. A black woman in particular could go to the theaters in the thick of awards season and see four black women (outside of maybe Banshees of Inisherin, I defy anyone to name a stronger acting foursome than Davis, Mbedu, Lynch and Atim) leading the everloving heck out of one of 2022’s biggest success stories. The Woman King is the year’s most empowering black story, its most empowering feminist work and has a mother-daughter narrative every bit as potent in its unvarnished way as the one we get from the masterful Everything Everywhere All At Once. I was privileged to see it and I felt even happier for anyone who got to see themselves in it.
The Woman King is also a gift to any fan of action cinema. For anyone who loves that sometimes disrespected genre, 2022 was the year that the action film experienced an astounding creative renaissance. A grand total of five films in my top 20 can be accurately called action movies. They include the glorious sequel to a film I never thought much of. They include the current Best Picture frontrunner. And they include my personal best film of the year. It’s not just encouraging to see so man incredible pieces of action cinema in a span of twelve months. What I think is really marvelous (a word I use very purposely here) is how diverse these five movies are from each other, how conceptually dazzling each one is, and what jaw-dropping levels of emotion and thematic vision each one has. At a glance, The Woman King is the most traditional of them. But again, playing around with the traditional form of the rousing action drama is its whole game. Other pieces of action cinema may have been more gonzo, more surprising. Maybe they made better use of butt plugs or had more men swinging motorcycles above their heads. But The Woman King is deceptively bold in how it finds juice in a kind of film I thought I’d seen before. It goes to show that, whether comfortingly familiar or spine-tinglingly out there, what matters is having a strong directorial voice. A voice that can bring tone and specificity and intent to the proceedings. The dust of old tropes and traditions are no match for Gina Prince-Bythewood here. She blows it all off the book in one single confident flourish. This lover of subversive, idiosyncratic movies left The Woman King feeling like a delighted child. I was ready to gather up my friends and pretend to be an Agojie in the park. I left the the theater feeling every bit as jazzed and mentally stimulated as I felt leaving Glass Onion or the new David Cronenberg. This film may dress conservatively but it does it in a too cool for school kind of way. You might be fooled into thinking this kind of fist-pumping, feel-good action sort of thing is played out, but you would be wrong. If The Woman King is old hat, old hats just might be coming back in style.