It’s a sad testament to the insecurity level of today’s born-again racism—the same old same old, but with a new evangelical fervor—that online trolls now typically try to poison the well with any big new minority-centric movie or TV show before it even premieres. You’ve probably all heard of the knucklehead hubbub that ensues whenever there’s an effort at more diverse casting in the Star Wars, Marvel/DC, or even Disney screen universes.
Then there’s something like The Woman King, which may not be the first large-scale popcorn movie focused on Black women (though there certainly haven’t been many), but nonetheless represents something rare, even groundbreaking within that terrain. And it’s hardly a case of color-blind casting that could as easily have gone to Caucasian actors: This is a non-fantasy action story set in an historical African epoch. What’s to be threatened by?
Yet before the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last Friday, small armies of trolls had voted it down on various websites, trying to make something they couldn’t possibly have seen look bad. You begin to wonder if those stereotypical white boys being radicalized online in mom’s basement constitute their own “weaker sex.” O, the fragility. Stop hyperventilating, dudes: About 3/4 of the U.S. population (and probably about as much of its entertainment) remains “white.” No one is “replacing” you, even as you keep self-isolating.
But of course The Woman King irks, not just in basic concept but in prominent advance publicity image of Viola Davis looking middle-aged, Mohawk’d, fierce, oiled, and pumped for combat like Rambo before her small army of similar warrior women. It’s an image of strength, not of vapid male fantasy in the “Amazonian babe squad” mode of movies from Cat Women on the Moon to Red Sonja to Sucker Punch.
The history of movies has largely been one of “boys’ own adventures,” celebrating male camaraderie and bravery on a horse, in the trench, or any other standard genre setting for action. How often do girls—let alone African American ones—get to live out similar celluloid dreams of collective invincibility? No, “sexy female assassin” and “dance/singing competition” movies don’t count. Even if it weren’t as good as it is, The Woman King would still be laudable for offering certain demographics certain types of role models they never, ever get at the movies.
But Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film is, in fact, very good—a mainstream crowdpleaser that earns that title without excessive pandering. Quibbles have been raised over its general historical veracity, in particular whether the all-female warrior unit that takes center stage here was really as significant a force in 19th-century Dahomey as depicted, and the script’s simplification of slave-trading politics. But while “inspired by true events,” The Woman King does not purport to be factual; its principal characters are nearly all fictive constructs. Heavy on battle, intrigues, and the struggle against tyranny, this is meant to be a rousing entertainment in the idiom of Braveheart and 300, movies that for my money did their heroic chest-beating with a heavier (and no more “factual”) hand.
It’s 1823 in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey, which has thinly maintained its autonomy despite being a tributary state of the Oyo Empire, which demands expensive tributes as a sort of protection money when not simply kidnapping its citizens for the lucrative slave trade. Dahomey is not innocent of participation in that trade, either, even if it “only” sells off prisoners of war. Davis’ Nanisca is General of the Agojie, a distaff military regiment at the service of young King Ghezo (John Boyega).
She would dearly love for him to sever all ties to slavery. But like the figure Yul Brynner made famous in The King and I, he is both open to progress and part-blinded by royal arrogance, not to mention the questionable influence of the most ambitious among his several wives. Beyond rival African powers, there is also the ever-encroaching threat of European colonizers, here represented by the purely commercial interests of a Portuguese slaver (Hero Fiennes Tiffin).
But Woman King’s screenplay, written by Dana Stevens, is really structured around the journey of a teenage protagonist, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who joins the Agojie after refusing to be married offto a boorish older merchant. Or rather, she hopes to join—much of the progress here is pretty much ye olde “Basic Training Montage”—alternately chafing under pressure and aching to prove herself.
She eventually gets a love interest (even though the Agojie are forbidden male companionship) in the form of Jordan Bolger as a figure right off a romance novel cover, a barechested younger biracial Fabio. Of course he’s a ridiculous device. But Prince-Bythewood, whose much more modestly-scaled prior features were all attuned to such tender emotions (Love and Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees), knows just how to make us laugh at the obviousness while thoroughly enjoying a hubba-hubba “female gaze” for a change.
In any case, there’s precious little mush stuff here; Nawi and her Mr. Right don’t even share a smooch. The emphasis is on women as a self-contained military society within a society, Davis giving tough-as-old-boots stoicism just as good as someone like George C. Scott ever gave. She is the purposefully somewhat-humorless center others revolve around in looser fashion. The show is sometimes stolen outright by Lashana Lynch’s gleefully butch second-in-command Izogie—a figure whose grip on viewer affections can be measured by the protesting roars when she exits the story.
Boyega, who’s endured his own stupid fanboy vote-downs by taking a Luke Skywalker-ish role (while Black) in recent Star Wars chapters, keeps impressing as an increasingly mature actor in increasingly mature roles. Here, his absolute monarch keeps us wondering whether he’ll save his people or be their downfall. In a movie with more than one strong monologue, he gets the climactic inspirational one. Good thing it’s a home-run, since it’s also the most talking a man does in these 135 minutes.
This isn’t a David Lean-style leisurely epic, but an action-driven 21st century one, without much time for nuance. While nothing in the director’s past work suggested (or required) a talent for spectacle, she fully rises to the occasion. The Woman King is very handsome, all earthtones and azure, not over-rushed but with nary an ounce of fat on its storytelling bones. As in the recent English-language Czech Medieval, the fight-training and combat scenes are interesting in part because they illustrate the war tactics of another era. They’re also viscerally brutal, yet staged and edited in a way that communicates grievous bodily harm without actually showing it.
Hence the PG-13 rating, without which this movie might not immediately reach the subadult female audience that (whether they realize it or not) has been waiting for it their whole lives. Boys, you’ve already had your G.I. Joe fantasies fulfilled in 2022 via Top Gun: Maverick. Girls now have The Woman King for themselves. While the new film’s box-office results may be comparatively low-flying, there is very little question that in every other way, they’ve gotten the better of the deal.
There’s no sense of collective empowerment to support the African American woman fighting battles in God’s Country, one of several intriguing films last January at the Sundance Fest that addressed racial tensions in a suspense-tale context. The always compelling Thandiwe (formerly Thandie) Newton plays Sandra Guitry, a lone non-white academic in her department at a university located in rural Montana. Her push for greater diversity on campus is treated by colleagues with polite respect, but no more. You can tell by the tense smiles all around that nothing much is going to change here, at least none too fast.
Still, she has the satisfaction of a tenure-track job (one she gave up a post in New Orleans for) in her chosen field, plus the welcome solitude of a home secluded even by the standards of rural “Big Sky” country. Even if that solitude is now a bit painful, given the recent demise of an ailing mother who’d moved here with her.
Sandra is prickly in her grief, and sense of isolation at work, and desire to be left alone elsewhere. So she is bothered one morning to find a pickup truck parked just a stone’s throw from her porch, the owners nowhere to be found. It turns out they are brothers (Joris Jarsky, Jefferson White) who consider they’ve got a traditional local hunter’s right-of-way to access trails that go through private property. Newcomer Sandra does not agree. Their dispute rapidly escalates, and while the law is officially on her side, there’s exactly one officer of the law in a 300 mile radius—and even he thinks she’s overreacting.
The brothers carry an edge of resentment towards such urban arrivistes, who bar them from lands they grew up roaming. So there’s a class aspect as well as a racial and gender ones to the myriad simmering tensions. No one here is “bad,” exactly, and everyone does things they will come to regret. This measured, intelligent drama-cum-thriller from firsttime director Julian Higgins, who co-wrote with Shane Ogbonna a screenplay based on a story by James Lee Burke, handles similar themes in a fashion diametrically opposed to something like the new Netflix feature End of the Road, in which Queen Latifah has to run an obstacle course of peril populated by caricatured yokels.
Here, the tenor is low-key but effectively taut, the characters never drawn in black and white terms—even if their ethnicities might be described thataway. It’s a thoughtful film that does eventually involve violent retaliation, yet still seeks to raise internal questions rather than provoke rage. Which, as amply illustrated here, is never the best means towards conflict resolution.
The Woman King opens Fri/16 at theaters nationwide. God’s Country also opens Fri/16 in limited theaters including the CGV on Van Ness and Metreon in SF, the Bay Street 16 in Emeryville, and other Bay Area venues.