Don’t say Viola Davis can’t do something, because she’ll continue to prove you wrong. At 56, action star is another notch on the belt of the esteemed actor, who has won a Tony, Emmy and Oscar. Her achievement in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s resounding epic “The Woman King,” along with the sensational ensemble, is among the highlights of the Toronto Film Festival, which premiered the film on Friday night. It feels like the “Gladiator” for Black women, and what a welcomed surprise.
With the right messaging and awards campaign from Sony Pictures, the film could be among the many consumer-friendly titles in the hunt for Oscar attention.
Davis is another name added to the long list of best actress contenders that already includes Michelle Yeoh (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”), Cate Blanchett (“Tár”) Olivia Colman (“Empire of Light”), with others waiting in the wings, such as Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”). Davis is a four-time Oscar nominee, winning supporting actress for “Fences” (2016), and “The Woman King” is among her very best endeavors yet. Thuso Mbedu, egregiously snubbed for an Emmy for “The Underground Railroad,” shines in a co-leading performance. She holds her own with Davis and — depending on category placement — is worthy of attention.
I can’t imagine a supporting actress lineup that couldn’t find room for Lashana Lynch as the scene-stealing Izogie, who serves as the film’s vessel for one-liners and some of its most emotional beats. She’s the epitome of an outstanding supporting actress.
All the love too for John Boyega as King Ghezo and Sheila Atim as Amenza.
The technical mastery of Bythewood’s artisan team is among the year’s best assemblies. Bow to the threads of costume designer Gersha Phillips, who gives the female warriors part of their identity.
Terence Blanchard’s score pulsates throughout, taking an original take on battle sequences. After getting two noms under the leadership of Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman” and “Da 5 Bloods”), he could be headed toward more recognition alongside another great Black filmmaker.
Cinematographer Polly Morgan, a true up-and-comer who has shown her chops in films such as “Lucy in the Sky” (2019) and “A Quiet Place Part II” (2020), shoots her best work yet.
Production design and editing are well within reach, along with makeup and sound.
Written by Dana Stevens, with a story by credit coming from co-producer Maria Bello, the script brings the 19th century West African kingdom of Dahomey to life. That said, two narrative beats are bothersome and stop the film a bit in its tracks.
Along with Bello and Davis, the film is also produced by Oscar-winner Cathy Schulman (“Crash”) and Julius Tennon, who also has a role in the film.
Prince-Bythewood’s direction demands attention. The scale and brevity of the movie is a seamless effort coming from her, cementing her place among our most luxurious filmmakers. Prince-Bythewood has long been ignored as one of our most dynamic and exciting directors in the game, with only five features to her credit — “Love & Basketball” (2000), “The Secret Life of Bees” (2008), “Beyond the Lights” (2014), “The Old Guard” (2020) and now, “The Woman King.”
Your move, Academy. Don’t pass it up.