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Toronto Review: Viola Davis In Gina Prince-Bythewood’s ‘The Woman King’

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Gina Prince Bythewood’s period film The Woman King opens with an incredible action sequence with General Nanisca (Viola Davis) of The Agojie army approaching a village of men holding their women hostage. Men are getting sliced, diced and tossed across the screen by these mighty warrior women. After they arrive back in the Dahomey kingdom victorious, the story introduces Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), an unmarried young woman deemed worthless because she has no husband. She’s taken to the palace and introduced to Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Shiela Atim), Dahomey’s top soldiers in the King Ghezo Royal guard. Women in the army are respected, and when they pledge to service, they take an oath of celibacy and childlessness to be accepted and train.

Life is thriving for the Dahomey, but something is looming. There is an impending sense of dread that war against the slave-selling General of the Oyo empire (Jimmy Odukoya) might be on the horizon. Meanwhile, the colonizing Portuguese have shown up to buy more bodies to take back to Europe. Now, King Ghezo is stuck between two powerful enemies, and it is up to The Agojie to keep the peace in the Dahomey Kingdom by any means necessary.

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Gina Prince-Bythewood is the only Black woman director engrossed in Hollywood action cinema. Her style encompasses the perfect balance of action and drama and is unafraid to put the brutality of humans on full display. Bythewood also holds the gaze of strong-willed women in her films (The Old Guard, The Secret Life of Bees, Love and Basketball, Beyond The Lights). Production design by Akin Mackenzie and costumes by Gersha Phillips are lush and opulent, drenched in deep red and yellow hues. A lot of thought went into making the Kingdom of Dahomey look as authentic as possible. 

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The editing is awkward in parts, with the sharp cuts seemingly cutting scenes off before they finish. The middle of the film drags on. The tone changes from hi-octane action to slow, meditative drama and holds that position for much of the film. It picks up the pace eventually and doesn’t stop until the movie is over.

This is rarely said, but every single actor and performance, from the central stars to the extras, is in top form. Being around Viola Davis must bring out the best in people. Lynch is stoic yet comedic, Thuso is youthful and expressive, Atim is the healing empath, and Boyega plays the diligent leader. The Woman King is a film about women, Black women. Women who aren’t victims of circumstance but warriors against oppression.

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