Woman King, The: Viola Davis Shines in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Rousing Historical Actioner

Viola Davis Shines in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Rousing Historical Action

Viola Davis, the indefatigable Oscar-winning actress stars alongside Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim and John Boyega in a feature inspired by an all-women warrior unit in pre-colonial Benin.


Energetic performances and technical precision make Prince-Bythewood’s film a rousing actioner, though one compromised by narrative shortcomings.

It’s a lush piece of entertainment in many respects, which brings to the surface a new subject, trying to explore the African continent’s rich pre-colonial history.

Viola Davis, the Oscar-winning actress known for digging into her characters’ psyches, demonstrates an impressive level of emotional depth and nuance as Nanisca, Agojie’s leader.

She’s a ruthless, protective leader plagued by defensiveness. Nanisca loves the women–her sisters–in her regimen, but struggles with different ideas.

Her relationship with the Agojie’s newest recruit, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) is initially difficult. The two frequently butt heads as the young fighter questions the prevailing rules, such as lifelong celibacy.

Mbedu (Underground Railroad) shines as Nawi, a teenager sent to join the Agojie after her father abandons the notion of marrying her off.

Akin McKenzie and Gersha Phillips’ production and costume designs.

The youngest women do drills within the palace’s walls, running laps, wrestling to improve their tactical skills.

There’s growing solidarity between the women, young and old. Amenza (Sheila Atim) is Nanisca’s devoted friend; Izogie (Lashana Lynch) is Nawi’s comfort.

The meticulous set design and soundscape, and Terence Blanchard’s exuberant score, create an apocryphal tale about protecting an empire.

Dana Stevens’ screenplay, based on Maria Bello’s story, tries to balance several competing plotlines.

The Woman King begins as portraiture and then surrenders to melodrama when faced with the challenges of translating history for the screen.

The origin of the Agojie is not reliably documented, but scholars suspect their unit was born out of necessity: The Dahomey, known for their strategic warfare and slave raids, countered the attrition of young men by recruiting women into military ranks; every unmarried woman could be enlisted.

The Woman King is not exactly an origin story, but it  acknowledge the kingdom’s participation in enslaving other Africans.

The film puts Nanisca in the role of dissenter. With the nation initiating a war with the neighboring Oyo kingdom, the Agojie general urges King Ghezo (John Boyega) to think about the Dahomey’s future.

She argues with him about the immorality of selling their own people to the Portuguese and suggests the kingdom turn to palm oil production for trade instead. But Ghezo fears that change would lead to the kingdom’s demise.

A recurring nightmare forces her to wrestle with her own demons, too. The general must consider the weight of her ambitions to become Woman King, a title conferred by Ghezo in the Dahomey tradition, and her past.

As the war with the Oyo deepens, and the fight scenes grow  more intense, The Woman King digs becoming more familiar, with its emphasis on love and community and unambiguous moralism.

It is a rather familiar crowd-pleasing epic actioner, albeit with one major new idea, that the fighters are Black women.


Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentation)
Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Production companies: TriStar Productions, Inc, eOne Features LLC
Cast: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, John Boyega
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Screenwriters: Dana Stevens, Maria Bello (story by)
Producers: Cathy Schulman, Viola Davis, Julius Tennon, Maria Bello
Executive producer: Peter McAleese
Cinematographer: Polly Morgan ASC
Production designer: Akin McKenzie
Costume designer: Gersha Phillips
Editor: Terilyn Shropshire ACE
Composer: Terence Blanchard
Casting director: Aisha Coley, CSA
Rated PG-13, 2 hours 6 minutes