FFor many of us, inside and outside film festivals, there can be a desperate need for something new, especially in the mainstream realm. The overwhelming glut of films that offer even more of the same continues to dominate the market and so when something provides a new concept, a new perspective or a new setting within the framework of a major studio, it can feel like a turn. exciting left on a road that too often feels boringly simple.
The slow rise of diversity that has allowed people other than the majority of straight white males to lead and usher in big-budget stories that have never been told or have been told through the same standard lens we allowed us to revel in the novelty often provided. Recently, Dan Trachtenberg’s Predator prequel Prey gave us an almost all-Native American cast and a female Native lead, the first for a franchise film of this scale and one of the many reasons it felt like such a triumph. And here at the Toronto Film Festival, the same night Billy Eichner premiered his gay rom-com Brothers (the first time a studio has released a movie with an all-queer cast), Viola Davis goes wild “good work”period epic The Woman King, a rare $50 million budget action film directed by black women.
It tells the story of the Agojie, an all-female troop of warriors who fought for the West African kingdom of Dahomey for centuries, violently and effectively confronting men who threatened and underestimated them. The film is set in the 19th century, when danger encroaches not only on white slavers, but also on competing empires, many of which work in tandem, forcing General Nanisca (Davis) to urge King Ghezo (John Boyega, s fun as a stylish polygamist) to reconsider their strategy, selling less of their people and more of their natural resources. To prepare for the inevitable battle to come, the Agojies also hire a new group of trainees, including local girl Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), spurned by her adoptive parents for rejecting marriage, now finding her place within a group of women who don’t belong either. for the gendered barriers that society as a whole wants to impose on them.
As novel as the film may seem in its positioning and telling a pocket of history that has never reached such an epic canvas, there’s a decidedly old-fashioned feel to Gina Prince-Bythewood’s mainstream matinee film. , with the director admitting she drew inspiration from films such as Braveheart, Gladiator and The Last of the Mohicans. It sounds like the kind of splashy studio mast that would have been a hit in the ’90s before such budgets were reserved for franchise movies with colons in the title. It’s beautifully crafted and intricately crafted, a great film dependent on a great team, and in an age of scaled-down streaming projects, which seem like they were made in a parking lot, it’s gratifying to feel so immersed in a world so carefully done.
Prince-Bythewood combines his experience of crafting clever, involving melodramas such as 2000s Love and Basketball and frustratingly underseen 2014’s Beyond the Lights, and his more recently acquired acting skills in 2020s The Old Guard. , to create something that appeals to a large crowd without complacency. . I would say the combination of action and drama could have benefited from a bit more of the old, with a great mid-section that needs more fight scenes, an exhilarating first tease of women in combat making us want to a great deal more. When it gets to the end, it’s brutally effective and precisely choreographed with some inventive acrobatic kills, albeit a few too many overly digital and weird valley moves that distract from a group of actors all showing off their training from A level.
At times, City of Angels and Safe Haven writer Dana Stevens’ script (oddly based on a story by actress Maria Bello), stuffs the package a little too much (a romantic subplot feels a little superfluous while stretching the assembling Warriors at such a large size means some are inevitably harmed), but it’s generally a smooth, audience-propelling movie designed to entertain above all else. When Hollywood has decided on rare occasions to show some of African history, it’s usually for the prestige, the dramas of slavery and subjugation, and it’s refreshing to see The Woman King told without rewards. at the top but at the box office, ambitiously aiming to beat the boys at a game they mostly played against themselves.
It might not be Davis’ magnum opus in terms of her greatest performance (her character needs a bit more depth aside from her need for combat), but she’s got some star swagger here. mainstream cinema that makes it a major milestone for someone who’s rarely been allowed to show it on such a scale. She fights with the same tenacity with which she acts, and her confidence on the battlefield gives hope that this won’t be her last action movie (a brief Neeson-style foray into search, search, and death wouldn’t be not a bad thing). Its warriors are equally adept, including a ferocious Lashana Lynch and captivating Sheila Atim, whose The Underground Railroad co-star Mbedu also makes a bold impression, allowed for the film’s widest emotional range and pulled the best out of it. gone, stealing a lot of attention away from the big names around him.
The Woman King is a robust and driving piece of studio entertainment that both makes the new look old and the old look new.