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Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu display true ‘nari shakti’ – Beyond Bollywood

Inspired by true historical events, director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film takes a firm stand against slavery and physical abuse.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Viola Davis in The Woman King [2022]

By Mayur Lookhar

Finally, The Woman King [2022] is here. The India release was pushed by four months in the hope that a probable Oscar nomination would suit the tried and tested India release strategy. Astonishingly, the film received zero Oscar nominations drawing sharp reaction from admirers. Social media was abuzz with the #OscarsSoWhite trend. The India release strategy now feels futile, but 136 minutes later, it’s worth the wait.

Helmed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Woman King [2022] is written by Dana Stevens, and derived from a story that Stevens co-authored with Maria Bello.  Set in 1823, the film is inspired by some true events from the Dahomey kingdom, which is now present-day Benin.  Prince-Bythewood and Stevens give a fictionalized account of the events told through the eyes of two fictional characters – Nanisca and Nawi.  Reportedly, the former character may have come from an account of a French naval officer who came across a female warrior called Nanisca. Everything about this film though is an education for desis like your reviewer.

The film depicts the West African kingdom’s fight against the Transatlantic Slave Trade that was the dirty work of Europeans. The Hollywood-English film particularly mentions the French, Portuguese. There’s even a Brazilian, but we don’t recollect much reference to America. Leading the Dahomey fight is Nanisca [Viola Davis], the general of the Agojie – an all-female military group. The men in the kingdom are forbidden from looking at the Agojies, who themselves can’t marry or bear any child.  (Now we know why 20th century Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi banked on women for his safety).

Agojie’s primary fight is against fellow [African] Oyo Empire, who facilitate the slave trade. The Woman King has courted some criticism that it perhaps glorifies the Dahomey, who themselves played a part in the slave trade. Though an irony, but the writer and director don’t hide the Dahomey history. Nanisca makes her feeling known to her King Ghezo, who too braves to put an end to such inhuman practices. History suggests that there was a lull following the Dahomey-Oyo battle, but the slave trade returned in the kingdom. It, however, would be gross injustice if the story of Agojie’s bravery remained untold.

Nanisca is aided by her trusted comrade Izogie [Lashana Lynch]. The General handpicks the toughest girls from the young recruits. Nawi [Thuso Mbedu] is the fiercest of the lot. Though a battle against an evil kingdom. Nanisca also has a personal score to settle with General Oba Ade [Jimmy Odukoya] of the Oyo empire.

Viola Davis delivers a power-packed performance, stunning you with her intensity. Her introduction scene is a sight to behold. A member from a rival Mahi tribe gazes upon the grass fearing that a beast might jump out from the bushes. The third gaze opens his eyes to no beast, but mighty Nanisca emerges from the bushes, ready to pounce on the slave traders. That opening scene sets the tone for the gripping action to follow. Davis has a commanding presence, almost stone cold in her conduct.  Beneath that tough exterior, lies a scarred woman who masks the internal turmoil. A subsequent personal disclosure eventually sees the tough lady show some emotion.  That only helps in humanizing the character. Not once does Davis drops her intensity.

Thuso Mbedu

The detailed training helps to separate the tough girls from the rest. There’s no leeway for any girls as the first task of the final test sees Nawi and co. walk through spinose structures. If Davis is the lioness, then young Mbedu is like a Bull Terrier. Ooh, those gorgeous eyes, they have some fight in them. She strikes with such ferocity that you can’t take your eyes off Mbedu for even a moment. For a teenager, Nawi isn’t afraid to stare in the face of death. One such adrenalin rush results in Nanisca slamming the young girl for disobeying her. To hell with authority, Nawi is born to fight. The director doesn’t lose sight of the tender ages, where the young girl isn’t afraid to show her emotions. Mbedu’s performance is nothing short of a virtuoso. The Mbedu intense act will remain embedded in our hearts forever.

British actress Lashana Lynch strives hard to get the African accent right, but there is the odd moment where we picked up the British accent.  She’s shown her feisty spirit in Captain Marvel [2019] and No Time to Die [2021], where she was the new 007. Izogie is intense, but she knows how to lighten the mood. In an early scene, a child is cautioned by his father to not look at the marching Agojies.  Izogie catches the little boy gazing at her before he covers his eyes. An intense looking Izogie walks up to the boy, uncovers his eyes and then breaks into that divine smile.  It’s this aspect that makes Izogie the darling among Agojies.

The Agojies fought when the word feminism wasn’t even coined.  The Woman King condemns slavery, but it also takes a stand against physical abuse. Slavery is long abolished, and the world has a come a long way from the dark ages, but the exploitation of women and children is still a grim reality. Through their girt, Nanisca, Nawi, motivate young girls, women to fight against injustice and abuse. 

Despite its feminist tale, men are not demonized. It’s only the evil that is condemned. Dahomey boasts of brave men, none more tough than King Ghezo [John Boyega]. He has many wives, but never abused any Agojie or any Dahomey citizen. This representation might be slightly different to the real King Ghezo, but director Prince-Bythewood stays clear of needless misandry.

Another notable thing is how the director doesn’t impose Christianity into her story like the past colonizers. West African tradition is proudly represented through tribal faith and dance form. No White-washing but the good Portuguese soul Malik [Jordan Bolger] wearing a cross is a subtle reference to cultural imperialism in the region. 

A drag would be an unfair word but the film has few such moments. There’s no lack of creativity, but pin this on the intense early screenplay that makes you crave for the women versus men battle. Credit to the director and writer who don’t compromise on the vital drama. The Hollywood film scores on the technical front too with its immersive cinematography, background score, and gripping action choreography.

The Woman King [2022] perhaps doesn’t quite match the early hype. It doesn’t have any Oscar nomination. However, it’s the stellar show of Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu that makes you bow to The Woman King. The film is set to be released in India on 3 February.

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