Gina Prince Bythewood period film The female king opens with an incredible action sequence with General Nanisca (Viola Davis) of the Agojie Army approaching a village of men holding their wives hostage. Men get sliced, diced, and thrown across the screen by these mighty female warriors. After their victorious return to the kingdom of Dahomey, the story introduces Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a young single woman deemed worthless because she has no husband. She is taken to the palace and introduced to Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Shiela Atim), Dahomey’s finest soldiers in King Ghezo’s royal guard. Women in the military are respected and when they pledge to serve, they take an oath of celibacy and childlessness to be accepted and trained.
Life is booming for Dahomey, but something is looming. There’s a sense of impending dread that war against the Empire’s slave-trading General Oyo (Jimmy Odukoya) might be on the horizon. Meanwhile, the Portuguese colonizers showed up to buy more bodies to take back to Europe. Now King Ghezo is caught between two powerful enemies, and it’s up to the Agojie to keep the peace in the kingdom by any means necessary.
Prince-Bythewood is the only black director absorbed by Hollywood action cinema. His style encompasses the perfect balance of action and drama and isn’t afraid to highlight human brutality. She also carries the look of strong women in her films (The Old Guard, The Secret Life of Bees, Love and Basketball, Beyond the Lights). In The female king, production design by Akin Mackenzie, and costumes by Gersha Phillips are lush and opulent, drenched in deep red and yellow hues. Much thought has gone into making the Kingdom of Dahomey as authentic as possible.
The editing is awkward in places, with the sharp cuts seeming to cut scenes before they end. The middle of the film drags on. The tone shifts from high-octane action to slow, brooding drama and maintains that position for much of the film. The rhythm ends up accelerating and does not stop until the film is over.
It’s rarely said, but every actor and performance, from the central stars to the extras, is in top form. Being around Viola Davis has to bring out the best in people. Lynch is stoic yet comical, Thuso is young and expressive, Atim is the healing empath, and Boyega plays the diligent leader. The female king is a film about women, black women. Women who are not victims of circumstances but warriors against oppression.