TIFF22: ‘The Woman King’ Review: An Astounding Historical Epic That Captivates

The Woman King is a historical epic that rivals the best of the genre. If your favorite part of Black Panther was anything related to the Dora Milaje, this may be the movie for you. There’s action, gravitas, a bit of humor, and a whole lot of heart. This is the strong female lead ensemble that is proof that women need more stories reflected at the movies. History isn’t just for sad white men, crying about how colonizing others made them sad. 

The Woman King tells the story of the Agojie warriors, as seen through the eyes of Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who joins the elite group after escaping an abusive domestic life. With other recruits, she trains, as she prepares to join the Agojie ranks. Collectively, they face the fight of their lives from the Portuguese slave traders, as well as the Oyo warriors. Along the way they encounter love, loss, and a sisterhood unlike any other. 

This is Viola Davis at the height of her powers. It’s a given that she will receive awards recognition for her role here as General Nanisca, and the titular Woman King. This performance is about so much more than awards, however. This is a heartfelt portrait of a leader who’s imperfect and yet in her imperfections is made whole. There is never any doubt that she has the best interests of the women who she leads and her entire nation at heart. 

This entire ensemble cast is one of the best that’s been assembled in recent memory. Mbedu is perfectly cast as a proud young woman, who has a thirst for knowledge, responsibility, and community. Lashana Lynch is a revelation, and she’s the big sister figure that we all need. Sheila Atim’s character Amenza and her fierce loyalty are heartwarming and awe-inspiring. If there had to be a man in the story, John Boyega was the perfect choice. His love for his people is evident, even when he doesn’t always listen to the voices he should. 

This entire story is a tribute to the power of women. A white and colonized view of history tells us that women have always been passive, letting history parade past them. This has never been true, and it’s important to showcase stories like this where women took their fate into their own hands. It’s a brutal story, but one that features women firmly in control of their own destiny, regardless of the direction history would eventually take. These women are complex, loyal to their cause, and full of love and devotion. Together, they are an unstoppable force.  

The controversy surrounding this movie has mainly revolved around the fact that in real life, the Kingdom of Dahomey benefited greatly from the slave trade. This commentary should be left strictly to those with cultural and historical expertise. There is no excuse for sanitizing or in any way minimizing the visceral horror that was the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It has to be said, though, white movie fans have watched countless sanitized and inaccurate versions of our histories play out on the big screen. It’s not as if this movie is the first to not capture the entire historical context of this group of people.

The Woman King is nothing less than a triumph of a historical epic. The expansiveness of the story never gets lost, however, since everything always comes back to these incredible women. These are deeply and lovingly constructed characters. One can only hope future female characters will benefit from this same treatment. If you see this movie for no other reason, see it to see how powerful women, specifically Black women are together. Nothing can stand against.

The Woman King is in theatres now.

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