Viola Davis turns in an award-worthy performance in The Woman King, a new historical epic that just premiered in Toronto.
I had to juggle my schedule a bit in order to attend one of the TIFF screenings. It isn’t unfair to say that Viola Davis should get an Oscar nomination for her role as General Nanisca. This is an epic true story set in the African Kingdom of Dahomey in 1823. Nanisca (Viola Davis) leads the Agojie, an all-female unit of warriors that serve kingdom, no differently than the Dora Milaje serving as Wakanda’s elite special forces in Black Panther. Without giving anything away, Davis makes quite the entrance in the film, perhaps one of the best entrances you’ll see this year!
Nanisca and company have the responsibility of training the new recruits because enemy forces–the Oyo Empire–wish to enslave their people. One recruit in particular, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), forces Nanisca to confront her past. I don’t want to give away anything specific but the film becomes Nawi’s story almost as much as it is Nanisca’s story. Even early in her training, Nawi becomes a skilled leader that the Agojie need to defend themselves. We get a real first-hand experience of what exactly their enemies have done to their people. Moreover, the film offers an inside look at how this kingdom values its women. Whoever King Ghezo (John Boyega) chooses as his mate is someone who also becomes an equal and takes the title of Kpojito–Woman King. As an FYI, Benin now sits where the Dahomey Kingdom once stood.
Brazillian slave traders Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin) and Malik Diallo (Jordan Bolger) represent the slave trade in the film. The two characters could not be more different from each other. What sets Malik apart is that he’s the son of a slave and slave trader. After getting to know some of the people in the Kingdom, he realizes that he can actually make a difference. Locally, Oba (Jimmy Odukoya) heads up the Oyo Empire and has zero respect for the women warriors.
There’s a lot of fighting in the film and the styles feel authentic to the time period. I cannot say it enough but we need an Academy Award to honor stunt ensembles. Stunt ensembles aside, the cast does their own stunts for 90% of the film. That being said, Lashana Lynch came into the film with previous stunt training for her work in the James Bond and Marvel movies and gets to show off her work beautifully as Agojie lieutenant Izogie.
This is the sort of epic story that filmmakers need to be telling! Dana Stevens pens a fictional script but the point still stands. When you look at the conversation over the past few years, this is the sort of story that we need to see on the screen. How many people have heard of the Agojie? I cannot say that I have, which also tells you what they do and do not teach in history books! If not for Maria Bello coming across their story while traveling, we might not even be watching the film! Moreover, Bello thought that Viola Davis would be perfect for the role and for that we should all be grateful. Davis isn’t only perfect for the role but this is the performance that should lead to her third nomination and hopeful win for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
Led by beautiful performances, including award-worthy work from Viola Davis, The Woman King is a must-watch historical epic and needs to be experienced on the largest screen possible.
DIRECTOR: Gina Prince-Bythewood
SCREENWRITER: Dana Stevens
CAST: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, and John Boyega
The Woman King held its world premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival in the Gala Presentations program. TriStar released the film in theaters on September 16, 2022. Grade: 4/5
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