Badass Black women fight bad guys and slave traders in the feminist-friendly The Woman King, a mediocre action-drama that so desperately wants to be so many things it ends up being not particularly good at any of them.
By no means terrible and with bursts of fist-pumping fiery, The Woman King is about a group of women warriors in the 1820s who were charged with defending the Kingdom of Dahomey (presumably because so many of the men had been captured for the African slave trade). The movie traces back to historical events/individuals, though it appears most everything that you see on screen is just Hollywood machinations at work.
This bugged me. I would have loved to see a gritty, realistic examination of these women warriors and the amazing things they did in what I can imagine was a tough and not particularly pleasant environment. Yet respectable director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Old Guard, Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees) and co-writers Maria Bello (yes, the actress, making her writing debut) and Dana Stevens seem content with giving us something less than that: an entertaining, semi-lightweight story with likable if semi-bland characters with questionably modern sentiments.
The whole thing just rings a little hollow; there are good intentions here, but The Woman King isn’t the spectacular movie it clearly thinks it is. Even the venerable Viola Davis looks a little lost; she gives it her all, but her character isn’t really given much to do other than look tough–unless you count the cheesy subplot involving a lost daughter that is just all too convenient and unnecessary.
Oddly, despite the title, the primary protagonist is Nawi, a 19-year-old soldier-in-training. Thuso Mbedu does a fine job in the role, but her constantly rebellious character appears to be rebellious for the sake of being rebellious (and frankly just doesn’t feel believable for the time period and setting); she’s a likable character but not a particularly deep one.
All this to say, The Woman King isn’t a historically accurate epic. But is it at least entertaining? Absent real historical context, such movies still have plenty of opportunity to inspire and excite (Gladiator, among many others, comes to mind).
I’m a white guy and while I don’t mean to presume what people of other demographics may think, I can see how The Woman King would resonate with Black audiences or female audiences in a way it didn’t with me. The movie highlights some incredibly fierce warriors who do some kick-ass things, and for that it should be celebrated.
But this is no great action-drama. It takes 80 minutes to get to the first major action scene, and that scene lasts nine minutes. I know only because I found those initial 80 minutes inconsistently dull, or at least forgettable, and I checked my watch several times to see how much longer I had to go. Much of the first hour is devoted to rather cliche training sequences and character bonding moments (the saving grace: Lashana Lynch, who played 007 in No Time to Die) that, on their own, are just fine but as a whole equal less than the sum of their parts.
Much of the story feels like filler, and even after that nine-minute action sequence, the remainder of the film feels more like a collection of subplots than what the main event should be.
I’m perhaps being too harsh on what is really a harmless movie meant to get you excited for the story at hand, but The Woman King tries to be both historical epic and badass female-led action film–and falls short on both counts.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.