Period epic The Woman King opens with a Star Wars-style text crawl that uses pulpy language to explain the movie's historical context, and the first scene is an intense, visceral battle, setting up expectations for an action-oriented take on the women warriors of the Dahomey people in 19th-century West Africa. That's not really what director Gina Prince-Bythewood delivers, though, even if there are some equally well-staged action sequences at regular intervals during the rest of the movie.
Most of The Woman King is a familiar and somewhat plodding historical drama, albeit one that showcases an aspect of history that doesn't get much attention in Hollywood movies. Set in 1823, it takes place in the kingdom of Dahomey (located in present-day Benin), which is engaged in a protracted conflict with the Oyo Empire. Both nations are beholden to the European traders who have established a presence in the coastal city of Ouidah, and the colonizers fuel conflicts in Africa via their demand for slaves to export to Europe and the Americas.
Prince-Bythewood and screenwriter Dana Stevens downplay Dahomey's role in contributing to the slave trade, focusing instead on the brutality of the dominant Oyo Empire. Dahomey is positioned as the underdog, and its secret weapon is the all-female fighting force known as the Agojie, led by the fierce General Nanisca (Viola Davis). The Agojie are treated with awe and reverence by everyone in Dahomey, and even King Ghezo (John Boyega) defers to Nanisca in certain matters. Although she's a powerful warrior, she advocates for peace, pressing Ghezo to shift to agrarian trade rather than continue to sell captives to the European slavers.
Davis is a towering presence, both in the movie and in its marketing, but the real main character of The Woman King is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a 19-year-old whose father abandons her to the Agojie after she refuses to marry an abusive suitor. She's quiet at first, but she quickly establishes herself as a dedicated fighter who isn't afraid to express her opinions. That puts her at odds with Nanisca and with one of Nanisca's lieutenants, Izogie (Lashana Lynch), although both eventually come to respect and care for her.
That dynamic, of the brash young recruit who eventually establishes mutual trust with commanding officers, is a staple of military dramas, and Stevens relies on plenty of clichés as the story develops. The interpersonal drama among the Agojie is rote and dull, despite the strong performances, and a late-film plot twist about the relationship between Nanisca and Nawi is painfully contrived and manipulative. The romantic connection between Nawi and Brazilian trader Malik (Jordan Bolger), whose mother was a slave captured from Dahomey, is even more hokey and unnecessary, especially in a movie that emphasizes the rare independence and power of a group of women in this time and place.
All of that falls away when Prince-Bythewood returns to the action, whether in a triumphant surprise attack by the Agojie on an Oyo military camp, or a climactic rescue mission to Ouidah to free Dahomey captives bound for slave ships. Prince-Bythewood most recently directed Netflix's superhero action movie The Old Guard, and she approaches the action here with the same immediacy and impact, sporadically living up to the promise of the movie's early moments.
Davis, who's appeared as a superhero-team liaison in various DC projects, makes the most of her belated action showcase, and the Agojie's fearsome reputation is on full display every time they head into battle. The Woman King could have used more of that, and less of the turgid melodrama that clutters up so many other period pieces. ♦The Woman King