OVERALL GRADE: C+
The Woman King is one of those perfectly serviceable films that, in my opinion, become victim to praise and laurels it can’t really hold up under (*You could probably put Top Gun: Maverick in that category for 2022 films as well, but I think its at least a bit more deserving of its praises than here.)This “based on a true story” film highlights the force of female warriors known as the Abojie in the West African kingdom of Dahomey. The head of these warriors is named Nanisca and is played by Viola Davis. As always, she owns the role in the quiet and subtle ways only she can. This group of women warriors and their fight against the slaving Oye tribe are the central vessel for this 21st century feminist tale of empowerment and perseverance…and this is my first problem for the film.
Look, I’m not against using “historical films” to find modern parallels – films do it all the time without major criticisms. William Wallace’s quest for “freedom” against the English in Braveheart had more the philosophical ring of Philadelphia than it did Edinburgh and yet I love that film. The Woman King’s problem is that its historical anachronisms just can’t be justified for dramatic license against its real history – its far too contradictory. The film would like for us to generally think the kingdom of Dahomey was generally against the slaving business (at least the Abojie) when in fact they were one of the largest drivers of it and only stopped when the Western world largely enforced its end. Additionally, the tribe was known for mass sacrifices and cannibalism. For a bit more of the actual historical context you can check out this article.
Perhaps this isn't a big deal to you and if so, your investment in the film will greatly differ to me. I just think this isn’t dramatically similar to telescoping the roles of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce into one for simplicity or transporting American ideals of “Freedom” into Scotland’s fight. The equivalent to what The Woman King has done would be if we somehow told the Braveheart story from the perspective of England as the oppressed and Scotland as the longtime oppressor and had King Edward the Longshanks crying “freedom” in front of his troops. In other words, the story is completely flipped because the filmmakers just want to focus on the female empowerment part of the story. The sad part is that if they had just told this as a generic historical story about female perseverance and not said it was specific to the Dahomey tribe or had them fight against any other evil than slavery then there would be no issues here. The moments where the women speak to each other of the toughness of their lives are some of the most moving of the film.
Additionally, the film has been largely praised for its action/fight sequences, which it really doesn’t live up to – the second major problem. There’s not a single action sequence that is innovative or even the equal of others in its class. In fact, the “okay” action works against the feel of the film – which generally aims for historicity/groundedness. Where Braveheart went for r-rated “turn your head” battle scenes to try and replicate the feel of a bloody medieval battle, The Woman King feels more like a Marvel comics battle sequence with the women warriors twirling their spears and swords as if they were more like a superhero character. When you read that the script for this movie had been in turnaround for a while until The Black Panther became a big hit, it's not hard to see why the action scenes were fashioned in its footsteps. The whole thing ends up feeling like a strange mixture of sorts – trying to be a true historical story, but also a 21st century feminist tale, that features Marvel esque battle sequences. The wild thing is, with the high production values, and the committed cast, they nearly pull it off. It’s a decent film. I just wish they had gone farther in one direction – more historical or more genre/artistic. I think it kinda fizzles trying to straddle both.
OVERALL GRADE: C+