Written by Dana Stevens
Book by Maria Bello
Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch
2022 | PG-13 | 2h 15min
Streaming: Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Apple TV, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
Love and Basketball (2000) was Gina Prince-Bythewood’s impressive directorial debut. Her work gained more acclaim with the release of The Secret Life of Bees (2008), beautifully adapted from a novel by Sue Monk Kidd.
In filming The Woman King, Prince-Bythewood has taken a giant step forward, creating a riveting historical epic under challenging conditions. For one, she had to film epic battle scenes during limitations imposed by the Covid pandemic. For another, this youthful director had to engage in mountains of research in order to recreate a little-known period in 19th century west Africa, with never before seen authenticity.
During a press conference after SF Film showed The Woman King, the director detailed how she shopped her script around Hollywood and found no takers. Finally word reached the Sundance Institute about her script and Sundance invited her to make a presentation. After talking to a potential backer, she was asked, “how much do you need?” She was provided with more than she asked, and that’s how this miracle production began.
Filming in South Africa, director Prince-Bythewood worked closely with cinematographer Polly Morgan and production designer Akin McKenzie. Their remarkable recreation of a moment in historical time focuses on the West African kingdom of Dahomey circa 1823. Physical location, time of day, camera angles and lighting received meticulous attention. Warriors going into battle had applied palm oil to their bodies, so this was done in the film.
The international slave trade had been raging ever since the fall of medieval kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, the legendary lands of gold and salt. Western-led invaders with guns were their downfall. When Dahomey tried to break away from slave trading in the 1800s, military conflict ensued, and the Agojie amazons were a significant weapon in that struggle.
Viewers will be in awe of these amazons because we see them as raw recruits, we see them struggle through training, and we see the respect they receive from their king and their relatives in Dahomey.
The performances of Viola Davis as the general and young Thuso Mbedu as a rebellious recruit are simply dazzling. The entire cast shines because director Gina Prince-Bythewood required all to train vigorously so they would move like and look like warriors. In addition, actors had to perform their own battle scenes.
Battle scenes begin and end the film, and they are mesmerizing. This is hand to hand combat with knives, spears, machetes. The element of surprise is key because the enemy possessed guns.
Viewers will be in awe of these amazons because we see them as raw recruits, we see them struggle through training, and we see the respect they receive from their king and their relatives in Dahomey. Whether they are returning from a military exercise or with injuries after a hard fight, they return silently to the fortified village. Family members look at the ground as they enter, because no one is permitted to stare at these warriors.
The combination of thorough research and inspired performance in The Woman King creates a film to be experienced and admired for years to come.