SMART MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Woman King’ dives into African culture
Published 4:00 am Sunday, September 25, 2022
By Ian Omar Smart | Guest Columnist
Playing at the B&B theaters in the Vicksburg Mall, director Gina Prince-Bythewood and producer Viola Davis uses “The Woman King” to foreground African culture and sisterhood in a narrative about the soul of a nation.
And beyond all of that, the movie is just so entertaining.
“The Woman King” centers on General Nanisca (played amazingly by Viola Davis) and her Agojie (African Amazon Warriors) defending the African nation of Dahomey from neighboring tribes. Their war coincides with Nanisca attempting to shift King Ghezo’s (played by the charismatic John Boyega) favor away from participating in the slave trade and toward a more agricultural-based economy.
New recruit Nawi (played wonderfully by Thuso Mbedu) acts as our conduit into this world as she fights alongside her sisters and meets European visitors.
Bythewood showcases her bonafides as a visual stylist by imbuing every moment with a sense of urgency and beauty. With battle scenes recalling the chaotic energy of classic western scrimmages, she also sacrifices modern expectations of “good” action with quick but deliberate cutting to highlight movement and accentuate the impact of spear throws and gunshots.
“The Woman King’s” aesthetic palette takes after classics like Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans” or Campbell’s “The Mask of Zorro.”
Blythewood also manages to create images of beauty that gives this story the weight of a great myth. Nighttime forest shots evoke fairy-tale imagery with light booming behind winding, expressive branches. Magic hour backlighting of 19th-century noblemen conjures thoughts of Disney’s “Pocahontas.” When not accentuating their dark skin, Bythewood occasionally turns the Aagojie warriors into striking silhouettes of action poses and feminine power.
From Lashana Lynch to Shelia Atim, the film also boasts a horde of Black women imbuing stock characters with personality and humor; quickly communicating character motivation but still feeling real.
Even underwritten roles like Malik (Jordan Bolger) are meant to subvert expectations for this type of story. The language of Romantic literature (which typically highlights White frontiersmen) gets applied to African women fighting slavers and being courted by European noblemen.
This heightening of the material places it firmly in the territory of historical fiction. That label allows the film to focus on a nation that participated in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, but massage the ways in which its citizens discuss it.
The film bypasses much of the controversy surrounding it by confronting that ugly truth and having its Black characters discuss if the moral rot of slavery is worth economic stability.
It all makes for a fascinating topic for a mainstream action film.
“The Woman King” is a wonderful Americanized tale of people we rarely see, rendered with reverence and beauty. The film uses several subtle techniques to normalize the Dahomey culture. Think about the way in which the film uses English to represent the Dahomey language while the European languages are all spoken using subtitles.
The film positions us squarely with Dahomey while “otherizing” the white colonizers — brilliant.
Ian Omar Smart is a graduate of Warren Central High School and Mississippi State University with a degree in architecture. When he’s not drawing buildings, he’s probably at the movies. Smart can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.