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New Moon Movie Night: ‘The Woman King’ Is the Epic I’ve Always Wanted

by Saira B.

Welcome to our moon-synced movie review show, hosted by Saira Barbaric and NEVE. This duo of South Seattle creatives make multidisciplinary work together and individually. For this show, they’re ecstatic to join their love of astrology, ritual, and pop culture.

Stream this month’s podcast at the New Moon Movie Review official podcast website

As I got settled for my third viewing of The Woman King, I felt startled in a couple of ways. First, I did not expect this third visit to the movie would be the first time I saw the film’s opening. Second, I did not anticipate being this excited to rewatch a historical epic. I love action movies, don’t get me wrong. I have vowed for years to watch as much women- and queer-led action as I could find. I’ve sat through rough rides, like Colombiana (2011) and Assassination Nation (2018), and found some joy. Overall, though, I get bored in the mainstream war epic. I’ve been following industry news about The Woman King since 2018, when rumors of Viola Davis’ role began. I should have known this film would become a new classic for me when director Gina Prince-Bythewood came on in 2020. I watched all three viewings of The Woman King enraptured, in tears, and full of the urge to ululate in the theater. 

Get your mind out of the gutter! Ululate: [verb] to make the bouncy, high-pitched sound of exclamation used across the African continent and in various Indigenous traditions.

A landscape from "The Woman King" shows clouds hovering low over mountains, trees, and other foliage, while close-up glimpses of warriors are visible in the fore
“The Woman King” is a women-led action movie based in Africa, both factors that make it a rarity among action films. (Image compiled by Saira B. from photos by Ogima Gaara via Pexels, cocoparisienne via Pixabay, and Bakr Magrabi via Pexels)

If you’re unfamiliar with Prince-Bythewood’s work, she has directed, written, and produced television and movies since the early 1990s. In a move that shaped my expectations of romance movies forever, Prince-Bythewood wrote and directed Love & Basketball in 2000. She also did the same double duty for 2008’s emotional The Secret Life of Bees, and she directed the 2020 comic-to-movie adaptation stunt fest that is The Old Guar​​d. I knew Prince-Bythewood had the skills to make something moving and visceral to experience. I knew she understood the rhythms to make your heart invest and how to shoot complex physical choreography. Her talents sing in The Woman King.

So far, the most contentious facet of The Woman King is the depiction and interaction with the transatlantic slave trade. The trailers oversimplify the character’s positions, while the movie simplifies the history. I can understand that some have been put off by the oversimplification, but I say it’s an unfair bar. Why should films about more recent history, like Amsterdam (2022) and Inglourious Basterds (2009), be allowed to stretch facts for the sake of fiction, but an epic set in Africa must not? If the film speaks of European history, the characters are clearly made more palatable to our current sensibilities. Some critics, though, whether genuine or malicious, seem uncomfortable with African characters being made palatable or even being allowed to be complex.

For those who are curious, accurate portions of the film include the expansion of the Agojie in the mid-1800s, the breaking of Dahomey from Oyo rule during King Ghezo’s reign, and the involvement of Dahomey in the slave trade. It’s also true that during King Ghezo’s reign, the British had switched their official stance on dealing in human cargo, and that from 1840 to 1870, some within Dahomey argued for palm oil to be their main export over slaves. There is more evidence than not that Dahomey’s involvement in the trade of human cargo was scaled up by pressure from outside forces and also made them rich as a kingdom.

In the film, General Nanisca — a fictionalized character played by Viola Davis doing her best work — embodies those anti-slavery positions in several scenes. She debates with a Pan-African view that is arguably not period accurate but closer to how the Black diaspora strives to recognize each other today. Through the film, we witness the pressures of increasingly audacious European slavers, the fully complicit and money-minded Oyo raiders, the indecision and uncertainty of King Ghezo against the certainty of Nanisca, and the wide-eyed wonder of new-to-his-homeland Malik. Add in Nawi’s angry disbelief and Izogie’s grim acceptance, and there are a plethora of perspectives on African involvement in the triangular trade of the day. If you’re willing to sit with the discomfort and analyze through the fiction, there’s a depth of complexity to be mined. 

I will resist comparing The Woman King to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, because it would be painful and pointless. I will say that The Woman King is a strong second in the women-led action movies that came out this year in a field that includes Everything Everywhere All at Once and the second Black Panther movie.

For classic action movie fans, who enjoy Braveheart (1995) and Gladiator (2000), The Woman King remixes the formula of large-scale action epics with scenery and cultures we’ve barely visited in American film history. We get the soothing and beautiful montages that accompany a new warrior learning her skills and becoming part of the army. We are given sweeping yet personal battles that follow from horseback to hand-to-hand combat. There are brutal hits and satisfying highs. The emotional core of The Woman King is rewarding in a mother-daughter storyline I did not expect, romance with a twist, and a dedication to traditional African spirituality that I adore.

I can’t say enough about the skills of this cast. Thuso Mbedu and Viola Davis are subtle and strong together and individually, with Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim rounding out the central ensemble. (If I could write out a wolf whistle for how good Atim and Lynch look in that battle preparation dance, I would.) John Boyega as King Ghezo and Jordan Bolger as Malik are pensive eye candy, whom I’m objectifying, but make no mistake — they’re power players in their scenes. Hero Fiennes Tiffin and Jimmy Odukoya are artful in their weaving of villains that are discomforting and tangible.

It’s still in theaters as I write this, so do yourself a favor; if you like a good fight or beautifully rendered historical fiction, go see The Woman King!

Since 2015, Saira B (he/she/they/ze) has been based in Seattle creating performance art, films, and events that explore mythology, eroticism, AfroPsychedelic dreams, ritual objects, and glitch as digital expressionism. Barbaric-art.com and Vimeo have more about Saira’s projects and past works.

NEVE (they/(s)he) is a multigender, multiracial, multiply Disabled, multidimensional, multidisciplinary terpsichorean artist of the stage, street, field, stream, and screen. They are an Indigenous African living in Duwamish and Coast Salish lands and traveling wherever they have access and an invitation. (S)He is a 2020 Pina Bausch Fellow and a 2022 Arc Artist Fellow. Visit them online at nevebebad.com and beyond.

📸 Featured Image: New Moon Movie Night is a podcast by a pair of nerdy and disabled artists, Saira and Neve, featuring spoiler-heavy movie picks and discussions synced with the new moon. Image courtesy of New Moon Movie Night; edited by Emerald staff.

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