Black women only -- no white saviors need apply. That's the unwritten mission statement behind "The Woman King," starring Viola Davis in a performance brimming over with ferocity and feeling. Having wowed audiences at the Toronto Film Festival, this historical epic is now at a theater near you where it delivers both the action and the artistic goods.
Think of the Dora Milaje, the all-female special forces who figured in Marvel's "Black Panther." But that unit was fictional. There's nothing made up about the Agojie, the legion of women warriors who grab and hold the spotlight as if by divine right in "The Woman King."
As Nanisca, the African general of the Agojie, Davis is bringing vivid life to the facts that can be documented. Set in the 1820s in the kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now Benin, the film chronicles the wars between West African empires.
Nanisca serves King Ghezo (John Boyega), who leaves the fighting and the dying to the Agojie. And there's plenty of both as director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who fired up Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne as immortal mercenaries in "The Old Guard," pumps up the adrenaline without going shallow on why these women forgo marriage and children in the name of battle.
Nanisca knows her country is participating in and getting rich on the slave trade she personally abhors and Davis lets us see how deeply the moral quandary is eating at her. Her ambition to become the woman king burns hot.
No knock on Davis as an action hero -- she's electrifying -- but it's the roiling depth of emotion that the "Fences" Oscar winner brings to Nanisca's crisis of conscience that raises the bar.
And Davis is not alone. Cheers to Thuso Mbedu as Nawi, the rebel teenager whose father sends her to the Agojie to learn to follow orders. As if. Mbedu, so good as the runaway slave in "The Underground Railroad," movingly shows how Nawi learns to follow her heart.
Nawi also benefits from the guidance she receives from Izogie (a knockout Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim), both offering counsel that is sometimes at odds with the preachings of Nanisca. For all its external flash, "The Woman King" never runs from its internal conflicts.
The training sessions for Nawi, set to a resonant Terence Blanchard score, help give the movie a thrilling, visceral life. But the film's female creative team, including screenwriter Dana Stevens, is committed to showing the Agojie community in all its infinite variety.
Even when "The Woman King" forgets its mission and goes full "Gladiator" about pleasing the crowd ("Are we not entertained?"), Davis and Prince-Bythewood pull back the reins and remind us there's more to movies than spectacle.
In its portrait of warrior sisters doing it for themselves, "The Woman King" is indelible and truly inspiring.