Flix at :48: The Woman King
With the hugely successful release of Black Panther in 2018, producers got a strong tap on the shoulder alerting them to the possibilities of African-set epics blending history with fantasy. Exploring this possibility is the new feminist action drama The Woman King about an elite army of women soldiers sworn to protect their village in 19th century West Africa. While not adapted from an actual historical account, The Woman King is based on the real-life kingdom of Dahomey that existed for approximately 300 years on the west coast of Africa and was highly militaristic.
Following in the footsteps of other historical epics like Viva Zapata! (1952) set in Mexico, Seven Samurai (1954) from Japan, Gladiator (2000) set in ancient Rome, and Apocalypto (2006) with the ancient Mayans, The Woman King is a painfully familiar hero's journey about unity, ferocity and courage. Throughout this film, I had difficulty getting swept away deep into the story because it kept reminding me of other films. The army of talented female fighters calls to Wonder Woman (2017). A defiant novice soldier enduring the rigorous training to become a woman warrior is reminiscent of Disney's Mulan (1998) or An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). The army's female general is forced to face her fears when her traumatic past returns in a threatening rival tribe, inspiring a revenge sub-plot like in Mad Max (1979) or Inglorious Basterds (2009).
I'm in full support of Black escapism films (Coming to America from 1988 and Cool Runnings from 1993 are popular examples), I'm just not impressed by the heavily referential character arcs and story structure of The Woman King. With a reported production budget of $50 million, the expansive set designs, costumes, and cinematography are rich with detail, texture and indigenous energy. The women soldiers don't have the acceptably mainstream look of super skinny runway models but instead are large, muscular, and robust. These elements add some great realism to the film.
While much of the dialogue is also very referential and cliche, the actors do their best being fully committed to their roles, especially the star Viola Davis (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, 2020) and the ingenue Thuso Mbedu (The Underground Railroad, 2021) as her young protege. I know this film is receiving some controversy and criticism about it tiptoeing around the destructive history of the Atlantic slave trade and Africa's complicated role within it. But every film is going to use some creative license to tell its story. Is The Woman King expected to follow a higher standard because it's set in Africa with only two non-Black characters on screen?
I just hoped The Women King would have used creative license to be more original and more inventive. Seeing so many Black faces together in one film is great (and rare). Seeing an action film with an imposing female lead is great (and rare). Seeing a movie set in Africa is great (also rare). But it's not enough to make The Woman King a great film. You need a great story most of all.