Thursday, September 15, 2022

Viola Davis gets fierce as a warrior


  An actress of intense focus, Viola Davis might have been born to play a female warrior — not a Wonder Woman style superhero but a a battler born of hard experience and bone-deep commitment. With a swaggering walk and steely gaze, Davis mixes indomitable will and commitment to principle.
   Inspired by a true story, The Woman King introduces us to the so-called Amazons or in terms of Dahomey culture, the Agojie. These were women trained for war in the Kingdom of Dahomey after many of  its men were captured and sold into slavery by the rival Oyo empire. 
  The conflict between Oyo and Dahomey forms a backdrop for plentiful action sequences in which the women prove their formidable strength. 
  Director Gina Prince-Blythewood, working from a screenplay by Dana Stevens and Maria Bello, finds the heart of the movie when she introduces Nawi (Thuso Mbedu),  a young woman who’s handed to the Agojie by her father.
  Cocky and arrogant, Nawi must learn to submit to the Agojie ethos, which roughly amounts to one for all and all for one: Military success relies on the smooth functioning of the group rather than on individual heroics — although there’s plenty of the latter,  The Woman King being a movie not a historical tract.
  Men don’t much feature in the story, primarily because the Agojie are housed in a separate and restricted part of the king’s palace.    
   John Boyega portrays the Dahomey ruler, King Ghezo, a monarch with many wives and mildly conservative views. Davis’s Nanisca tries to convince the king that selling Africans is wrong regardless of the ethnic group to which someone belongs. 
  Two additional women (Adrienne Warren and Lashana Lynch) distinguish themselves as Agojie warriors, mentors and confidants.
   European intrusions arrive in the form of a white slave trader (Hero Fiennes Tiffen) and his pal Malik (Jordan Bolger). Born of an Africa mother and a white father, Malik has been sent to Dahomey by his mother to find his roots. 
  Nawi catches his eye and the screenplay toys with a dubiously plotted romance while trying to remain true to the notion that the last thing the Agojie need are male protectors. 
   The Woman King team creates an alluring Dahomey village where the Agojie train and where Nanisca eases her strained muscles in the azure waters of an indoor pool, perhaps the 19th century equivalent of a hot tub.
    If the Dahomey village has been idealized, so be it. Viewers may find other suggestions of the kind of cultural celebration that existed on a much more hyper-realized level in Black Panther. 
   Aside form the slavers, the principal villain in the piece arrives in the person of Oda (Jimmy Odukoya), who rules over the Oyo and ruthlessly participates in the slave trade in alliance with the Portuguese. Nanisca has her own reasons for wanting to vanquish Oda. 
   The Woman King was filmed in South Africa, not in the West African nation of Benin, as the former Republic of Dahomey now is known. Presumably, the rituals and dances staged by Prince-Blythewood  reflect a degree of authenticity.
   As for historical accuracy, a little time with Google will let you know that the movie cuts corners, opting to provide what might might be considered an outline of the forces at work in West Africa during the second decade of the 19th century.
   Whatever its shortcomings, The Woman King has Viola Davis, who’s playing a character enhanced by conviction and strength wrought from the punishing toil of living.
    The sight of Nanisca charging an enemy, her scimitar pointing skyward, will make you believe that she can strike fear into the hearts of anyone who would do her wrong.

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