Movie review: 'The Woman King' is an exciting African female warrior epic

Izogie (Lashana Lynch, R) and Nanisca oversee the new Agojie recruits. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures/CTMG
1 of 5 | Izogie (Lashana Lynch, R) and Nanisca oversee the new Agojie recruits. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures/CTMG

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 10 (UPI) -- The Woman King, in theaters Friday, is an African female warrior epic. Viola Davis handles an action hero role as deftly as she handles Oscar-nominated drama.

In 1823 West Africa, Nanisca (Davis) leads the Agojie, the Dahomey female army of King Ghezo (John Boyega). Their enemies, the Oyo, are slave traders.


Nawi's (Thuso Mbedu) father gives her to Dahomey when she refuses the marriage he arranged. So, Nawi trains under Nanisca and Izogie (Lashana Lynch) to become an Agojie.

It's clear from the battle scenes that the cast put in the work, did the training and learned the choreography. They are graceful in battle and demonstrate ingenuity with their weapons and technique.

The Woman King is realistic about the Agojie facing armies of Oyo men. The brute strength of men is still formidable.

The men can pick up the strongest Agojie warrior and toss her around. So The Woman King doesn't pretend the Agojie are superheroes but they have spent their lives training to work around physical disadvantages using techniques we still see used by MMA fighters.

It feels like The Woman King wants to be as bloody as would be historically accurate, like The Northman. However, if the studio wanted young people to be allowed to buy tickets, it is reasonable they pulled punches for a PG-13 rating.


That training is exciting too, especially a brutal obstacle course. Nawi is a difficult student which makes her accomplishments all the more rewarding.

The film derives a lot of production value from filming on location in South Africa. You see armies of real people colliding, not crowds of CGI.

The broader world of The Woman King feels a tad less focused. A subplot about Nanisca's disagreement with Ghezo's wife (Jayme Lawson) craves more intricate politicking.

Oyo General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odokuya) gives Nanisca a definitive villain to oppose in the movie's battles. The film does not develop Oba Ade any further than being the bad guy.

A subplot about a half Dahomey Brazilian (Jordan Bolger) visiting his late mother's home feels entirely superfluous. He provides an obligatory love interest to Nawi in a movie that does not need to pair its women off romantically.

But, those are all standard issues with Hollywood genre movies and not dealbreakers. The Woman King honors the historic Agojie warriors and gives Davis and Mbedu a badass action vehicle they deserve.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.


Latest Headlines