The white men speak in subtitled Portuguese, while the proud members of various African tribes express themselves in English in “The Woman King,” a clear sign of where our allegiances belong in director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s sweeping early-19th-century war movie. It’s an Africa-set epic of the kind not seen since “Zulu,” only this time, the task of defending the Mother Continent rightfully falls to the locals, not their enslavers. This side of the story is long overdue, recasting Western civilization’s greatest shame as the atrocity that it was while celebrating those who opposed it. Modern as that sounds, the movie embraces the codes of mid-20th-century costume dramas: It’s stirring but slightly stodgy, designed to stand the test of time.
In her fiercest role yet, Viola Davis leads an army of elite women warriors, called the Agojie, who protect the kingdom of Dahomey from outside threat. She answers directly to King Ghezo (John Boyega), a man of many wives whose views toward women are left conveniently ambiguous. Likewise, Dana Stevens’ stirring script strategically downplays the Dahomey’s own practice of capturing and enslaving others, which surely would have complicated the more admirable dimensions of this historical — and history-making — drama.
Dubbed “Amazons” on account of their superior strength and berserker fighting style, the Agojie are reportedly the group that inspired “Black Panther’s” Dora Milaje. Now, they are liable to inspire future generations, as Prince-Bythewood (a director for whom scope comes easily, coming off Netflix’s globe-spanning “The Old Guard”) gives these women the iconic treatment: Rigorous training montages and other rites of passage, seen through the eyes of new recruit Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), build to elaborately choreographed action sequences and, in some cases, dramatic death scenes. These women are formidable, but not invincible, after all.
Davis plays Nanisca, who in the film’s aggressive prologue, stands firm before a phalanx of well-armed soldiers, her hair fashioned into a kind of Mohawk, scars visible on her face and shoulders. We’ve never seen the actor like this, and not for a second do we doubt Davis’ capacity to take down her rivals, as Nanisca brandishes a broad scimitar and ululates her sharp, shrill battle cry, cueing dozens of Agojie to charge forward, leaping and spinning into combat with members of a rival Mahi village. (Fight coordinator Daniel Hernandez brings a few Hong Kong flourishes to the choreography.) This raid serves a specific purpose — to liberate Dahomey people whom the Mahi had planned to sell as slaves — and makes the point up front that Africans did not take such debasement lying down.
With women clearly established as its heroes, the movie proceeds to introduce two villains: The first is Oda (Jimmy Odukoya), ruthless leader of the Oyo Empire, who’s been organizing other tribes against the Dahomey — and who, judging by a few intense flashbacks, gave Nanisca a personal reason to want his head on a pike. The other is a white slave trader named Santo Ferreira (Hero Fiennes Tiffin), who speaks Portuguese and seeks strong Black laborers to bring with him back to Brazil. This character isn’t even remotely intimidating and seems ill-suited to the jungle, through which he’s carried in a sling by Black porters, a shameful practice seen often in Tarzan movies.
We can’t help hating these two figures, although Santo is accompanied by a hunk named Malik (Jordan Bolger), whose heritage is more complicated: His father was white; his mother was Dahomey. The instant Malik sets eyes on Nawi, the movie opens a Disney-esque door for romance (“Pocahontas” comes to mind) it’s not really equipped to see through. That said, a little sexual tension helps to underscore the sacrifices these virgin warriors must make to defend the kingdom, and the target audience likely won’t mind a bit of beefcake to break up the 80 minutes of conditioning Nawi and the others need before the film’s next big battle scene.
The Dahomey won’t be free until Oda and Santo have been dealt with. To make these confrontations believable, “The Woman King” must establish that its warriors are capable of standing up to superior weapons — the Agojie are armed mostly with blades and spears, while their attackers carry guns. But Nanisca’s fighters show discipline as well, and one of the film’s points seems to be that greatness is not given but must be earned. No wonder there’s so much focus on training — time that Prince-Bythewood uses to dimensionalize the Agojie’s other members, like Ode (Adrienne Warren), a young Mahi captive who joins the cause, and Nanisca’s trusted spiritual adviser Amenza (Sheila Atim), who acts as a sort of conscience for the group. While she and Nanisca keep an eye on Nawi from afar, Izogie (Lashana Lynch) steps in as mentor, recognizing aspects of herself in the teenager and becoming something of an audience favorite in the process.
The ensemble swells with admirable characters, although this close-knit group forms its core: It’s who we’ll root for when Oda returns to steal more slaves. As indicated earlier, the Agojie speak English, stylistically accented — a strategic decision on Prince-Bythewood’s part that honors the characters’ heritage, while making them plainly understandable to international audiences (as opposed to Mel Gibson’s approach in “Apocalypto,” asking his cast to talk in Yucatec Maya). Gibson’s oeuvre — and that film in particular — is an obvious reference for “The Woman King,” which is far less brutal and, by extension, less effective. Revenge is a dish best served bloody, but here, only Nanisca has a personal grudge against Oda. The others are soldiers, simply following her lead. And who better to command but Davis in a role for which she will be remembered?