The Woman King is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood with a screenplay by Dana Stevens who worked in collaboration with Maria Bello to develop the story. The Woman King has certainly been a very controversial film since its first trailer came out, though the reality is that I really wanted to see how the final product turned out. Since it’s all well and good to comment on a trailer, it’s another to actually go out and see the film. When I was looking up the history of this story after the fact, you have no idea how hard it was to not find Youtube videos that were made by people who you should really question before watching.
My opinion is that while the film does omit some portions of history, from what I could gather (I may have missed some facts but I was desperately not to click on right-wing think pieces written by people with bad faith arguments) the film doesn’t omit too much but there is definitely some problematic elements that have been taken out for the film. It does paint the nation of Dahomey in a much better light than how history has judged some of their actions. But as I mentioned, I’m definitely not one to comment on this and my research on this wasn’t exactly extensive.
Judging as a film alone, I think it’s fine. To be fair, the film does say it’s ‘inspired by true events’, whenever you see those words, you know that they’re going to be playing a little fast and loose with the story.
The film takes place in Western Africa in 1823 and tells of the kingdom of Dahomey being under siege from the kingdom of Oyo and concentrates on the nation’s first warrior women known as the Agojie, who through tough and rigorous recruitment are formed to defend the kingdom.
Led by Nanisca (Viola Davis) under the command of King Ghezo (John Boyega), the film itself concentrates on four warriors in particular, Nanisca, her confidante Amenza (Sheila Atim), trainer and big sister figure Izogie (Lashana Lynch), and probably most importantly, the new recruit Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) who joins the group after being sold by her father after she rejects another possible husband.
The film itself has a few intertwining plot lines, Nanisca is confronting a portion of her past, Nawi is trying to find a new family and is dealing with a potential romance that is introduced later, but the central conflict is always there. The central performances are always there, especially from Viola Davis- and I really hope that she gets an Oscar from this performance. I also really thought that there was an excellent supporting performance from Thuso Mbedu, and I hope she gets nominated for Best Supporting Actress because she’s excellent in the role.
Despite the claims that it downplays the slave trade, it’s definitely present in the film, especially towards the end, and there are a few scenes that are very hard to watch. I think that the criticism comes from the fact that most of the slaves are being traded by members of another tribe and it’s less concentrated on the fact that it was propagated by white people. In fact, one of the things I found surprising was that there weren’t really any British or American characters in the movie. The slave auction that takes place towards the end features two Brazilan characters, one playing the major role is Malek (Jordan Bolger) , who is half-Dahomey on his mothers side and is travelling to Africa because his mother’s dying wish was for him to see her homeland. He’s the character who has a romance with Nawi. I thought that the chemistry was kind of there but I thought having this kind of romance in this type of film felt rather tone deaf..
I’ve also noticed some criticism has been said about the film not having any consistent accents, and the ones on display are a bit of a hodgepodge of different regions in Africa. I will give the actors credit on this one, because I don’t think anyone was expected to be completely perfect and you are going to be limited to which talent pool signs up for the film and auditions for it.
Apart from the great central performances, which from a character standpoint do tell a touching story, where this film really succeeds is from a technical standpoint. The soundtrack is amazing and includes an excellent film score. The costume design and set design are also amazing. I was also amazed at how well the action was filmed in this movie, the cinematographers really understood how to convey action in this film, and as a result there aren’t too many cuts and you can establish a good timeline of what’s going on.
If there’s one thing I think holds The Woman King back, it’s the runtime. It’s two hours and fifteen minutes, and I felt that a few scenes went on for too long. I felt that that exacerbated the fact that the film didn’t give itself enough time to tell all its different subplots, to an extent that a couple of them got thrown to the wayside. I can’t say this is a perfect film. As a character piece and a story, The Woman King is really good. The action and cinematography are great, and the soundtrack is great also.
The controversy surrounding the film did make me slightly nervous reviewing the film, and if I got anything wrong I apologise! If you’re happy to say that the film is inspired by true events and not a reflection of them, I think that the film does well, because from what I could gather, there is stuff that was omitted that perhaps shouldn’t have been, and I wonder if that will affect the film in awards season.
Another thing I liked about the film was that this was kind of a film aimed at getting Oscar nominations, but it doesn’t feel that way watching it. You can feel that this was definitely a passion project for people in the film, Viola Davis in particular feels like she is giving her all- unsurprising because she was a producer.
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