Viola Davis would have made an incredible silent film star. When she directs her gaze at someone in close-up, dialogue becomes completely redundant. She can stare with furious anger or inspect with barely controlled emotion. IN The female king, she is shown a whole arsenal of impressive fighting moves, where she lashes out at her enemies with swords and knives and a variety of mixed martial arts. But I was most amazed at the incredible things she can do with her eyes. They are her greatest weapon.
IN The female king, she plays Nanisca, a general who leads a platoon of all-female warriors defending the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1820s. Dahomey really existed, and so did Nanisca’s army, known as the Agojie, who lived a monk-like existence behind the walls of the king’s palace. They abstain from marriage, sex, and motherhood, and instead pledge their loyalty to their king and their sisters-in-arms.
There are some historical figures in the film, including the Dahomey king Nanisca’s servant, Ghezo (John Boyega). But the film makes no claim to on-screen verisimilitude – there’s no title card announcing that it’s “Based on a True Story” or anything like that – and elements are pretty obviously fictional even to a layman (i.e. me), as the film unfolds. As another highly entertaining action film of the year, RRR, it uses real-life events as a jumping-off point to tell a fictional narrative laced with real history supported by imaginative storytelling. In other words, it’s a film, not a documentary. And a pretty exciting one at that.
Davis’s Nanisca stares mostly at members of the Oyo empire, Dahomey’s main rivals for control of the region. Enemies captured by both sides in their ongoing conflict are then sold to Europeans in the slave trade – a practice Nanisca detests and tries to convince King Ghezo to end it. As the Oyo gather their forces near the Dahomey border, Nanisca begins training a new group of potential Agojie warriors, including the headstrong Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who is given to the king by her father after she refuses a marriage proposal.
Nawi is brave and wants to fight for her king – but she also struggles to follow orders, which Nanisca insists is one of the keys to Agojie’s success in battle. (“Alone, you’re weak! Alone, you’ll be killed—or worse!” she warns her students.) As Nawi grows as a soldier, Nanisca contends with palace intrigue, while Ghezo’s many wives jockey for control over their husband, who has the power to to appoint one of them “Queen King”, supposedly a complementary monarch with power equal to his own. Nanisca’s persistent lobbying to end the sale of POWs as slaves becomes even more urgent when traders arrive from Brazil – including a ruggedly handsome man named Malik (Jordan Bolger), who is half Brazilian and half African. Malik’s undisclosed colleagues threaten to join the Oyo if King Ghezo makes good on Nanisca’s dream of freeing Dahomey’s prisoners.
Whose The female king becomes a big box office hit, it might be worth noting how many similarities this story has with the plot of 2022’s biggest blockbuster, Top Gun: Maverickanother film about a seasoned warrior who becomes a teacher to a younger generation of soldiers, including an arrogant but brave fighter whom the main character adopts as a kind of surrogate child. The female king also draws comparisons Brave heart and Gladiatorfilm that combines epic battle sequences with philosophical discussions of slavery and the nature of freedom.
In the case of this new film, it seems far more enjoyable when Nanisca and the Agojie kick ass – in fight scenes directed with exceptional energy by Gina Prince-Bythewood — than when it has to reckon seriously with the barbaric practice of the slave trade and Dahomey’s role in perpetuating it. The female king is also badly derailed by a ridiculous romance subplot between Nawi and Malik that seems very improbable and very convenient before ultimately concluding in a totally unsatisfying way.
Still, the fight sequences are huge, and Davis’ intensity throughout is remarkable. As Agojie’s general, she is the one who demands that Nawi and the rest of the platoon abide by the group’s rules around marriage and babies, and she presents herself as a stone-faced combatant who has purged herself of all emotion. When surprising plot developments threaten that facade, Davis gets to add even more nuance to her performance. Her characters in action films and thrillers tend to be coil springs; bottled figures of fury and power restrained by calm exteriors. IN The female king, the spring is unrolled – both physically and emotionally. It’s a thrill to watch. (So is the rest of the supporting cast, including a scene-stealing Lashana Lynch as one of Nanisca’s lieutenants.)
Like all good war movies, The female king contains its fair share of inspirational speeches and gloomy aphorisms. Such a sentence becomes very important through sheer repetition: “Sometimes a termite can knock down an elephant.” This may be a famous African expression; I honestly don’t know. (A quick Google search turned up nothing.) But for a movie geek, those words evoke the work of critic Manny Farber, whose most famous essay is called “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.” In it, Farber argues for whatever genre fiction (termite art) is over fancier (and heavy-handed) big-budget works of “white elephant” art.
The female king occasionally plays like a battle between its own elephantine and termite art tendencies, and its final act seems unsure whether to embrace its impulses for gritty, B-movie action or venture into a more solemn consideration of its heavier problems. In the story, the termite can take down the elephant. Behind the scenes, the final result is not so cut and dry. But Davis’ performance – and the ferocious fight of her Agojie comrades – does The female king at least worth seeing.
10 movie titles that became common phrases
How many of these expressions do you use in conversation?