Home Entertainment Woman King Review: Viola Davis takes charge of a gripping warrior story

Woman King Review: Viola Davis takes charge of a gripping warrior story


You’d have to think The Woman King would do for Viola Davis what Gladiator did for Russell Crowe.

Both films are grand sword-and-sandal epics, both based on story in general, and both films give their leads a great chance to shine, with plenty of action and even more pathos.

In The Woman King, Davis plays the fearless Naniska, a general who leads an elite all-female fighting unit called the Agoji.

The Ogoji are the spearhead of the forces of the African kingdom of Dahomey, and also serve as personal protectors to King Gezo, played by The Force Awakens star John Boyega.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ looks like something straight out of a Hollywood scriptwriter, Dahomey, Gezo and Agoji existed in Africa in the early to mid-19th century when the film is set.

Camera iconViola Davis in The Woman King. credit: Sony Pictures Publicity

It begins with the Ogoji, led by Naniska and her trusted lieutenants, played by Lashana Lynch and Shiela Atim, raiding the village to free the prisoners of Dahomey from the oppression of the Oyo Empire.

You see, the Oyo captured Africans from neighboring countries and sold them to European slave traders.

Now, Dahomey isn’t entirely innocent here because she did the same thing, but Naniska tries to convince King Gezo that the kingdom should take the moral high ground and make money from palm oil instead of human trafficking.

This is the main story line of the film, but the real drama is in the details.

Namely the experience of a novice Agoji named Navi, played by South African actress Tuso Mbedu.

Received by the king as a gift from her father, the energetic young woman quickly comes into conflict with the legendary Naniska.

These relationships are at the heart of The King’s Woman, and traumatic events from Naniska’s own past soon complicate them further.

But before this can be resolved, the Agojie must overcome the vast armies of the Oyo Empire and the evil influence of European slave traders.

Historians from the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Cape Town, as well as American descendants of people who were traded as slaves, have questioned the morality of the film, which glorifies the kingdom of Dahomey.

In real life, it was one of the worst African nations when it came to being involved in the slave trade, and Agoji probably only existed to forcibly kidnap people to sell to Europeans for profit.

But Hollywood has never let a few inconvenient truths get in the way.

The flip side, of course, is how rare it is to see a true Hollywood blockbuster that focuses not just on an African story, but a story that is predominantly about African women.

Viola Davis in The Woman King.
Camera iconViola Davis in The Woman King. credit: Sony pictures

On that subject, Woman King owes a lot to the success of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, which proved once and for all that you don’t need an all-white cast to be a box office success.

Fun fact: All of the female warriors in Black Panther were actually based on Agoja.

While the film may be a bit problematic from a historical perspective, Davis is absolutely amazing and Lynch deserves the lead right away.

3.5 stars

Starring: Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch, John Boyega, Sheila Atim, Tussaud Mbedu

Rating: M

In theaters: now


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