Review by Daniel Blackaby September 16, 2022
The Woman King (Christian Movie Review)￼
Verdict: A refreshingly original film that soars on the back of a superb cast and a compelling story.
About The Movie
The Woman King is the answer to those who have grown weary of the endless parade of superhero or franchise films, and bemoan that, “Hollywood never makes original films anymore.” Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the film is an excellent throwback to classic Hollywood; a high spectacle, historical epic in the vein of films such as Gladiator and Braveheart. With a compelling story and dynamic acting, The Woman King is easily one of my favoirte films of the year.
Set in West Africa during the 1820s, the story centers on the Agojie, an all-female group of elite warriors tasked with protecting the Dahomey kingdom from oppressive neighbors and foreigners. The story is based on true events, although the historical accuracy is tenuous, with a revisionist and far more progressive depiction of the Dahomey kingdom. But The Woman King is not a history lesson. It’s a sweeping, action-filled epic, and to that end, it excels.
The acting is superb across the board. Viola Davis obviously didn’t find her Oscar on the side of the road. The lady can flat-out act, and is excellent once again. Another standout is newcomer Thuso Mbedu, who is a complete revelation as Nawi, a young warrior trainee. They are joined by a collection of other talent actresses, including the charismatic Lashana Lynch and the quietly captivating Sheila Atim. With such a powerhouse team of women, you almost forget that John Boyega is also in the film, although he turns in a quality performance as the Dahomey king.
The film offers high spectacle without feeling like mere spectacle. It is immersive and ambitious in its scope, but the set design, digital effects, and cinematography never draws attention to itself or distracts from the story. The restrained paced also allows room for quieter, more reflective moments. When action scenes do arrive, however, they are thrilling. The combat is raw and weighty, with visceral violence that pushes the boundaries of its PG-13 rating.
On the other hand, one aspect of the that film that simply doesn’t click is a half-hearted romantic subplot that seems included out of some studio-mandated necessity, featuring a hunky, perpetually shirtless male actor. The movie never commits to the superfluous subplot, leaving it as an annoying interruption to the story. Also, while the heroes are well-developed and nuanced, the villains don’t receive similar treatment. The main white slaver gets no characterization beyond “bad white colonizer” and the villainous general of the enemy African kingdom is all physicality.
Despite these nitpicks, The Woman King is a refreshingly original story, and a reminder of how powerful cinema can be when not chained to mass-produced, easily-digestible franchises. The fact that The Woman King exists at all is a success, and hopefully it will be the catalyst for similar films in the future.
On the Surface
Profanity: Woman are called “b—ches.”
Violence: The action scenes are as intense and bloody as the PG-13 rating will allow. Characters are slashed, stabbed, and hacked; throats are slit, and several severed heads are briefly shown. The violence is not sensationalized or gratuitous, but will likely be too much for younger viewers. There is also some sexual violence (see below).
Sexuality: A character talks about being raped, and a brief flashback of the moment is shown (although only faces are visible). A woman is inspected at a slave auction by a man who fondles her breasts. A male character is shown fully nude after bathing, using his hands to cover his crotch. Two characters are shown in towels, presumably after sex.
Other: The Dahomey people’s native religion is depicted and discussed throughout, including offerings on altars, making oaths, soothsaying, and conversations about “the gods.”
Beneath The Surface
Engage The Film
Although the story has been filtered through a modern lens, forgoing historical accuracy for the sake of more clear-cut themes, the way these themes are explored remains interesting and surprisingly nuanced. The film weaves together various characters and storylines to examine the multi-faceted theme of oppression. Near the end of the film, John Boyega’s character delivers a speech and declares that to break the chains of oppression they must first realize that they don’t belong in chains. This proclamation essentially serves as the film’s primary message.
The film explores how oppression, in whatever form it takes, is dehumanizing. The exploitation of the slave trade is depicted side-by-side with patriarchal oppression. For example, in an opening scene that mirrors the later scenes of slaves on the auction block, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) is offered by her father as human property to a dominating husband.
Another duality throughout the movie is between external and internal oppression, and how the first can produce the second. The Dahomey people are oppressed by European colonizers, but by participating in the slave trade and selling their own prisoners, they have, in a sense, also become their own oppressors. A similar example is shown with Nanisca (Viola Davis), as she realizes that she has internalized the abuse in her past.
Although The Woman King is not told from a Christian perspective, at the heart of the story is a reminder that all people made in the Image of God, and posses worth and dignity. In recognizing the inherent value of all human life, people should be compelled to resist and fight against dehumanizing oppression wherever it is found.