Queen is King

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” has become one of the year’s most-discussed and controversial films, and the talking points highlight valid questions about representation...
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Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” has become one of the year’s most-discussed and controversial films, and the talking points highlight valid questions about representation. If this is what a big-budget Hollywood film depicting indigenous warriors looks like, what will it mean for later film productions and the way they shape a mainstream screenplay out of history?

“The Woman King” is set in Africa circa 1823, as a war breaks out between tribes and requires the Dahomey warriors, composed entirely of women, to take charge. The General is Nanisca (played by Viola Davis), who is haunted by her past and shaken by a reminder of things she survived long ago.

Courtesy Sony Pictures

Davis gives an intense, captivating performance and John Boyega also stands out, in another stretch from the actor, who impresses every time he takes on risky roles that create distance from his “Star Wars” role. 

While always compelling and often exciting, “The Woman King” is also conventional. The character arcs are clearly laid out, as this is a training film, a vengeance tale, a depiction of a reunited family, and a celebration of the power and endurance of women. That’s all fine, though it makes for a movie where the plot points connect neatly and predictably. 

While this is an entertaining and passionately made work, it always feels like a movie. The PG-13 rating suggests a tougher cut was softened in the editing room, in order to appease a wider audience. 

The screenplay was, oddly, written by Dana Stevens (whose past work includes the dreadful “Safe Haven” and “Life or Something Like It”) and Maria Bello, the actress and former “Coyote Ugly” star; the script has crowd pleasing elements that feel borrowed from other, better movies. 

The film’s biggest misstep is having the African characters speak English except for the odd moments where they chant in their native tongue. The argument that no one likes to read subtitles, or that an English-language film is more accessible, is no longer acceptable. Having the African characters speak English is an old Hollywood trope and out of place today. 

It’s not often that I say Mel Gibson gets it right, but here’s the thing: Gibson’s “Apocalypto” (2006), about the struggles of a Mayan warrior, didn’t have a single word of spoken English, which was exactly right (that film, by the way, is fantastic). Even Steven Spielberg’s imperfect, controversial but often brilliant “Amistad” (1997) wisely refrained from having its African characters speak English. There is power and honesty in hearing how characters would actually speak, which is why I refuse to watch any foreign language film in a dubbed version. Representation isn’t just about seeing the truth, but hearing it, too.

There are times where the pacing is off, as some scenes feel too padded, particularly the overextended final scenes. The film shines when the focus is on its two main protagonists and the training and battle scenes. It’s refreshing to see the stunningly choreographed fights being mostly devoid of CGI (as opposed to the warriors of “Wonder Woman”). 

While we’re left waiting, maybe indefinitely, for the long-promised Dwayne Johnson/ Robert Zemeckis King Kamehameha epic and have the upcoming Jason Momoa-led Hawaiian-set series, “Chief of War” on the way, an indication of what’s ahead could very well be “The Woman King.”

The many strengths and commercial missteps in this film make me wonder about the future of these kinds of stories being told from a Hollywood studio. For example, will Momoa’s “Chief of War” feature Hawaiian dialogue or go the route of speaking English to appease those who whine about reading subtitles (grow up, you infants!). If Zemeckis and Johnson finally commit to making “The Kingdom” (as it’s currently titled), will the King Kamehameha I epic depict indigenous people in a layered way that allows for nuances and characters who are contradictory? Or will the Hawaiians in the film be portrayed more as symbols rather than flesh-and-blood characters? 

The question of historical accuracy is valid. However, let’s not forget that “The Woman King” is a movie, not a historical document. It’s not a documentary. Every incident and spoken word cannot be accounted for (of course not—it takes place in 1823) and we’re looking at performance, composite characters, and personal interpretation. No “true story” movie is ever entirely true, in spite of our demands for accuracy when a movie is an offspring of a real incidents. 

It’s easy for me to defend “The Woman King,” as its strengths (particularly the performances) outmatch its weaknesses (spotty pacing and unevenness). That said, the need for movies to get the history right has never been more immediate, especially when it’s a film about indigenous people, told from their POV. Whether it’s a film about African or Hawaiian tribes, the need to leap over stereotypes and into a canvas of truth and historical reflection is the best possible future.

Barry Wurst

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