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Viola Davis is 'The Woman King' in an epic story inspired by true events

Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "The Woman King" starring Viola Davis.

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Other segments from the episode on September 16, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 16, 2022: Interview with Matthew Macfadyen; Review of The In Crowd; Review of The Woman King

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new movie "The Woman King," Viola Davis plays the leader of an all-female regiment of warriors in a West African kingdom during the early 19th century. It's the latest movie from Gina Prince-Bythewood, who also directed "Love & Basketball" and "The Old Guard." "The Woman King" opens in theaters this week. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: One of the more heartening Hollywood comeback stories in recent years has been the return of the director Gina Prince-Bythewood with movies like "The Old Guard" and now "The Woman King." It had been a long wait for many of us who adored her earlier films like "Love & Basketball" and "Beyond The Lights." As Prince-Bythewood has said in interviews, her focus on women protagonists, especially Black women protagonists, had made it hard over the years to get her projects off the ground. Fortunately, the industry is changing, and it's finally come around to recognizing her talent.

Her latest movie, "The Woman King," is her most ambitious project yet, a rousingly old-fashioned action drama drawn from true events about women warriors in 19th century West Africa. The movie originated with the actor Maria Bello, who produced it and wrote the story with the film's screenwriter, Dana Stevens. It opens in 1823 in the kingdom of Dahomey, located in what is now Benin. For several centuries, this kingdom was defended by an army of women fighters called the Agojie.

In the movie, the Agojie are led by the powerful Gen. Nanisca played by a galvanizing Viola Davis. She isn't the ruler of this kingdom. That would be the king played by John Boyega. But given the movie's title, you suspect it's only a matter of time. In this scene, Nanisca prepares her soldiers for battle.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WOMAN KING")

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Nanisca) When it rains, our ancestors weep for the pain we have felt in the dark hulls of ships bound for distant shores.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, vocalizing).

DAVIS: When the wind blows, our ancestors push us to march into battle against all who enslave us.

(YELLING)

DAVIS: When it thunders, our ancestors demand we rip the shackles of doubt from our minds and fight with courage. We fight not just for today, but for the future. We are the spear of victory. We are the blade of freedom.

BIANCULLI: The Agojie warriors are fighting the male soldiers of the Oyo Empire, who've been attacking Dahomey villages. To build up her army, Nanisca brings in a new batch of female recruits, among them an impetuous teenager named Nawi played by Thuso Mbedu, the terrific South African star of last year's "The Underground Railroad."

Much of the script centers on the growing bond and the growing tension between Nanisca and Nawi. As the leader of the Agojie, Nanisca insists that all her warriors follow a strict code that includes lifelong celibacy. Nawi chafes at that restriction, and her independent-mindedness often clashes with the Agojie's values of discipline and self-sacrifice. But by the end, Nawi absorbs those values and becomes a courageous fighter, honing her skills through many exciting scenes of training and competition.

"The Woman King" was shot on location in South Africa, and its recreation of the Dahomey villages is so immersive. The costumes designed by Gersha Phillips are especially gorgeous that it just about carries you past some of the messiness of the storytelling. To its credit, the script addresses some of the historical complexities of the situation including the fact that Dahomey became a rich kingdom by participating in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a practice that Nanisca wants to end. She also has a personal score to settle with the Oyo warriors. And "The Woman King" is sometimes a little unsteady in its mix of political plotting and emotional drama. A romantic subplot involving Nawi and a hunky European explorer feels especially tacked-on.

Nanisca may not be the most complex character Viola Davis has played, but it's thrilling to see her take on her first major action showcase as she dons battle gear, wields a sword, and hacks her way through the many, many men who get in her way. And she isn't the only one. My favorite performance in the movie comes from Lashana Lynch as Izogie, a top warrior who takes young Nawi under her wing. You might have seen Lynch squaring off with Daniel Craig's James Bond in "No Time To Die." And here she manages to be funny, heartbreaking and fierce.

Prince-Bythewood has conceived "The Woman King" in the grand-scale tradition of epics like "Braveheart" and "Gladiator," this time with women leading the charge. While the action doesn't rise to the same visceral intensity as in those films, it makes for an engrossing and sometimes exhilarating history lesson. I left the theater thinking about how an old civilization recognized the strength of what women could do and how it's taken the empire of Hollywood so long to do the same.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "The Woman King" starring Viola Davis.

On Monday's show, Sterlin Harjo, the writer, director and co-creator of the FX series "Reservation Dogs" about a group of teenagers on an Oklahoma Indian reservation. The Peabody Award-winning show is the first and only TV series on which every writer, director and series regular is Indigenous. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

We'll close with this music by Duke Ellington, which he wrote for Queen Elizabeth II after he was presented to her in 1958 at an arts festival in Yorkshire. This is "Sunset And The Mockingbird" from "The Queen's Suite."

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON AND HIS ORCHESTRA'S "THE QUEEN'S SUITE: SUNSET AND THE MOCKING BIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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