The King Woman – Gina Prince-Bythewood

The King Woman – Gina Prince-Bythewood

The King Woman levels its feminist appeal into Disney’s big boss energy and executes what’s left of its vision in conventional, calculated ways.

What can you do with a film like The King Woman? Watch, obviously – but then what? In contemplating what has just been seen, what set of value judgments should be implemented in terms of establishing a discourse? These basic questions must be raised by every great work of art, and yet in the case of The King Woman, they are more than simple talking points for establishing rhetorical banter. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest film is a radical piece of feminist cinema – yet this is more or less a foregone conclusion when compared to the traditionally chauvinistic parameters of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking practices. If anything, the film’s vaguely superficial feminist subtext gives it a pass to indulge in the same conventional clichés of other films of its ilk. Except here, the formulaic action and predictable storytelling beats that would rightfully receive a slap on the wrist in other films are now in the service of a lot of Disney’s big-wig energy. Progress, apparently, has been made.

Following the exploits of the Agojie, a group of female warriors who protect the Kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa during the 1820s, the film focuses on the revered general Nanisca (an intense, if also seemingly on autopilot now, Viola Davis), who trains a younger generation of fighters to protect their homeland from slave traders (a fact that is briefly mentioned, then quickly swept under the rug) from Spanish conquistadores – ever trusted second-act villains – and neighboring tribes. Why we are rooting for Dahomey over any other group they fight against is never established, as their skirmishes are also motivated by personal gain and growth; it seems that filling a gender quota for battle guarantees viewer empathy. On the topic of war itself, the film often feels neutral; again, if it’s a woman gloriously sacrificing herself in battle, then that’s fine.

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Without considering, The King Woman operates in incredibly calculated ways: the young and reckless Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who becomes our point of identification, will obviously show herself above all others – she will deliver a daring blow, be publicly reprimanded, then privately rewarded – and win slowly the admiration and respect of everyone around her. She’ll find a foreign love interest, though it’s hard to say whether or not the film is on her side on the issue: one minute it’s an act of defying the patriarchal system, the next it’s seen as an act of submission. She will eventually be kidnapped, only to be saved about 20 screen minutes later. And when all else fails to instill some sense of danger, the film reliably taunts audiences with threats of sexual violence against its female characters (or worse, uses it as cheap exposure). If you couldn’t tell, every narrative device that could happen here eventually would. from Nawi the chosen arc eventually ends with a familiar reveal that is so over-the-top it feels like it belongs in another movie entirely.

When you’re not focusing your energy on delivering a series of easy-to-digest conflicts that go into one audience member’s ear and out the other, The King Woman it is ostensibly a historical epic with a sense of grand scale. However, the battle sequences suggest otherwise, as there has been so little attention to creating kinetic edit rhythms that feel physically distant. Whenever a killing blow is about to connect, or some poor bastard is having his eyes measured, the film cuts, apparently in fear that an R rating would be too incompatible with the tone and audience for such unsophisticated material. It’s not exactly a cowardly move, but one that shows a notable lack of conviction – a position that could reasonably be argued explains nearly every other bad choice made here.

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