With the New York Film Festival just around the corner, I am excited to finally see some other films that may find themselves in contention this year, starting with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King. The film is a historical epic inspired by true events concerning an all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey during the 17th to 19th centuries. Viola Davis stars as a general who trains the next generation of warriors (the Agojie) to fight their enemies in 1820s West Africa (present day Benin). The film also features supporting players Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and John Boyega.
While watching The Woman King I felt as though I was the closest I had ever been to how Nettie describes her first sight of the African coast in The Color Purple in a letter to her sister: “Something struck in me, in my soul, Celie, like a large bell, and I just vibrated.” Despite all the backlash the Steven Spielberg film has received, it remains among my top five of all time, so I do not say this lightly. Although primarily shot in South Africa, Bythewood all but transports you to West Africa and drops you smack dab in the middle of a region rife with those who take it for granted and who seek to exploit its resources—even if it means turning on their own. What follows in the razor-sharp script written by Dana Stevens, based on a story she co-wrote with Maria Bello, is an epic that has been compared to the likes of Gladiator, but that stands on its own two feet anchored by the electric hum of the outstanding ensemble. To be sure, Davis delivers a knockout performance as Nanisca—a warrior who has more than her own fair share of enemies and demons—inhabiting a role you haven’t seen her in before. Try as I might, I cannot see this year’s Oscar race for Best Actress without her. Similarly, relative newcomer Mbedu, a 31-year-old South African actress who doesn’t look a day over 19—coincidentally, the age of her scrappy character Nawi—looks to be the one to watch in the Best Supporting Actress race, but perhaps only because she has the Oscar scene. Lynch, who appeared earlier this year as Captain Marvel in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness also shines as Nawi’s mentor Izogie and could also feature in the race.
The real beauty of The Woman King is that it expertly walks a fine line between action and drama without any missteps. Fans of films like the Gladiator will relish in the fight sequences whereas those more inclined to shell out for a family drama will find themselves right at home. When all was said and done, I left behind my bucket of tears feeling as though I had just witnessed something truly groundbreaking because indeed, I had. Oh, don’t forget to stay for the extra scene following the credits!
Possible Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Score, Best Director