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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

The Woman King

Blood Soaked Vengeance Of Anatomical Brilliance

The Woman King first lures viewers into a relatively peaceful setting and in less than two minutes, blindsides us with shock but never shock value. Yes, all that is needed for a great epic is on full display, and yes it IS crucial for the story and YET, The Woman King never presents itself as ONLY one thing. Just whose story is being told, what story is being told, and how we’re supposed to digest it is never made clear in black and white. I always enjoy the rush that comes from films that silently let you know something gigantic is approaching very fast but it is Director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s approach to unlocking the internal wounds of her heroes through her portrayal of physical endurance that makes the waves of The Woman King crash with such triumph. That she is able to make violent blood-soaked vengeance look so pure and beautiful is just another drop of red in her vile of anatomical brilliance.

In a nutshell, The Woman King is about an ensemble of all female warriors led by Nanisca (an exceptionally magnetic Viola Davis in her most complex role since Fences) in West Africa who fight to protect their kingdom of Dahomey from another African kingdom that wants to enslave their people to gain massive wealth from their business associations with the Europeans.

That many African nations were so complicit in the slave trade isn’t as shocking a revelation as I may have once thought as nothing within the realms of corruption really shocks me anymore. The Woman King doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that Dahomey participated in the slave trade and it is a stronger film for it. As far as historical accuracy goes, the timelines don’t precisely add up, and just how similar Dahomey’s ruler King Ghezo (John Boyega) was to white slave owners didn’t go as far as I’d have liked to see but The Woman King might just be the beginning of new films that tries to really look more closely at history.

Yes, there was enormous racism in the rise of the slave trade but what’s not depicted very often is the indifference to it. Owning slaves for many was like owning a car that gets scratched and not caring because the person in question has many more and is not looking to trade that one in any way. It feels so grotesque having to write that but the norms of those times were what they were.

The business of the slave trade is a very crucial aspect of The Woman King but its heroes are fighting to protect a kingdom that’s complicit in the hopes that they can do better. Nanisca is disgusted by her king’s business and insists they can be just as successful in selling palm oil. Another batch of slaves has been taken and it won’t be long before Dahomey is wiped bare of any political influence. Nanisca along with her most experienced warriors train a new ensemble of recruits, one of them, a young girl from Nanisca’s past whose arrival forces Nanisca to revisit repressed traumas and wrestle with certain choices she made to save herself.

Dahomey is not a kingdom worth saving only because it didn’t have a true leader. The true leader is Nanisca and her genuine belief that Dahomey can change makes her quest for victory seem worth it. You believe in her mission because you believe in her. The first time you see her as she pokes her head out of the grass under the moon as she prepares to pounce on her enemies, you know to underestimate her is to sign your death warrant.

It is that sense of certainty in the faith placed in Nanisca’s character that makes all the other details blossom around her. The score, production design, cinematography, hair and makeup, and costumes - all flourish with radiance and conviction because it is Nanisca at the center of it all. The Woman King is not solely Nanisca’s story but she is its guardian. Viola Davis herself is The Woman King. She knows quite a bit about endurance herself and while The Woman King ends in a time where the suffering of the highest order continues, it is the fight deep within that makes the film feel safe.

Such love, protective ferocity, and loyal devotion amongst marginalized women who somehow rose to power are feelings stroked and nurtured by The Woman King but never coddled. Are films of this magnitude on the verge of erupting in our cinemas? Will the success of The Woman King strive for studios to finance such essential voices? Is The Woman King groundbreaking because it’s so rare a film or does it somehow stand out in a deeper sense? Will The Woman King alone be enough to create more change? Only time will tell. Having hopes of success for such rare films be restored by viewing one is the best I can do to patiently await cinema’s own future woman kings but at this stage, perhaps it was naive to even try.

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