At The Movies: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman a whimsical treat; The Woman King not all-powerful

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At The Movies: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman a whimsical treat; The Woman King not all-powerful

135 minutes, available on Netflix

3 stars

The story: The Agojie were the legendary female militia of 19th-century West Africa, the original Dora Milaje of Marvel’s Black Panther. Viola Davis stars in this fictionalised dramatisation as the commander readying the next generation of fighters to defend their homeland against the Atlantic slave trade.

There was much disgruntlement in the lead-up to the 2023 Academy Awards over the perceived snubbing of Davis, who received no love for her sinewy yet sorrowful presence as General Nanisca of The Woman King.

This imposing leader is the adviser-cum-conscience of young King Ghezo (John Boyega), pressing him to repudiate the slave economy – their wealthy Dahomey kingdom profits by selling captives from neighbour tribes – as African and European nations draw up strategic alliances in a historic era of colonisation.

Around their palace courtyards, meanwhile, the Agojie train and live in sisterly solidarity.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood has been telling black stories since her 2000 debut Love & Basketball, and this Afro-centric feminist opus is a rare Hollywood display of ethnic and gender representation.

It has the context right, but, regrettably, not the content. Beyond the political tensions and cultural specificities, and for all of the film-maker’s passion, the narrative is a hackneyed coming-of-age journey of a brash teen recruit (Thuso Mbedu) learning discipline and sacrifice from her Agojie femtors – while having a furtive romance with a shirtless African-Brazilian himbo (Jordan Bolger).

The movie fails to fulfil its potential except as a military action epic. In hand-to-hand combats lithe and fierce, the women warriors show no mercy, slaying their enemies using scimitars, machetes and manicured nails.

Hot take: Black, strong and proudly female – but just because this historical saga is a progressive movie does not make it a good one. It is contrived melodrama all the same.

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