Tag Archives: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Battle Tested

The Woman King

by Hope Madden

If you thought the coolest thing in Wakanda was its army led by Danai Gurira’s Okoye, two thoughts. One: correct. Two: see The Woman King. See it now.

What you may not realize is that Wakanda’s Dora Milaje was patterned after the 17th and 18th Century West African Agoji, called the Dahomey Amazons by slave traders. Why?

Because they were badass!

They fought ruthlessly and relentlessly for the Dahomey state – a fact we should all have known for our entire lives. Thankfully, director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Old Guard) and legend Viola F. Davis have finally brought their war stories to our screens.

Is it a fictional story? Yes. They all are. Every beloved historical epic you’ve ever seen is fictional. But these warriors were real.

Davis – war worn and glorious – is their general, Nanisca. She has earned the ear of Dahomey’s King Ghezo (John Boyega), and she uses that privilege to show him that the Dahomey must no longer participate in the slave trade. They must never again sell their war captives to slavers.

Slavers have other ideas, but those will have to wait because Nanisca has a new crop of trainees, including the headstrong Nawi (Thuso Mbedu). The youngster more than holds her own in an army of veterans including the always welcome Sheila Atim as second in command. It is Lashana Lynch, though, who steals scenes and makes James Bond look like an armchair quarterback.

A script by Maria Bello and Dana Stevens plays on Prince-Bythewood’s strengths. The filmmaker’s work understands rather than displays the unending troubles connected to womanhood and the resilience and power of sisterhood.

Dahomey is no Wakanda. This world is unkind to women. (What world is not?) It is the castoffs who become Agoji, and they sacrifice as much as they endure. But the power they have as a unified whole is recruitment enough.

What many did not know before The Old Guard is that Prince-Bythewood knows her way around an action sequence. The Woman King is much more than training montages and battle scenes, but that doesn’t mean those set pieces disappoint.

In many ways, the film is an exceptionally well made, old fashioned historical epic. But as soon as you try to string together a list of similar films, you realize that there are none. This movie is the breathtaking, entertaining and wildly necessary new king of that genre.

And if there is any justice, everyone complaining today about a Black mermaid should run into an Agoji on their way out of Starbucks tomorrow.

Tugging Hearts, Slashing Throats

The Old Guard

by Hope Madden

Let’s start with this piece of obviousness: Charlize Theron can do anything. From indie dramas to bawdy comedies to badass action, Theron commits and convinces.

In Netflix’s The Old Guard, she plays the leader of a small but immortal group of soldiers eluding capture while trying to train a new member. It’s Book One in a series, and that can be a dangerous spot for a film because that tends to mean a lot of exposition and not enough conflict.

Not here.

Greg Rucka adapts his own source material and director Gina Prince-Bythewood makes the most of his screenplay and her cast.

She flanks Theron (spectacular, obviously) with actors who are, first and foremost, talented actors. The fact that they make for believable mercenaries is a really excellent bonus.

The ever versatile Matthias Schoenaerts gives the film its aching heart while KiKi Layne proves herself to be as convincing here busting heads as she was at drawing tears in If Beale Street Could Talk. Though it’s unfortunate he couldn’t have stolen a little more screen time, the great Chiwetel Ejiofor is a welcome presence, as always.

So what Prince-Bythewood does is surround Theron with other talented actors whose versatility compliments hers. This brilliant move let the filmmaker take a somewhat by-the-numbers superhero tale and tell it with a restraint that takes advantage of her cast’s flexibility and talent.

In Prince-Bythewood’s hands, The Old Guard explores the same universal themes mined in most superhero films, but she tells the tale as a taut and tactical military experience. The understatement makes the action sequences stand out, the filmmaker requesting your close examination of each bout and each battle, whether hand-to-hand, bullet-to-brain or saber-to-throat.

It pays off, delivering a thrilling action movie that doesn’t disregard your brain. Even better, this is a movie that tugs at your emotions without the need for swelling strings or sentiment to convince you.

That’s what happens when one formidable women pulls together a group of similarly skilled badasses.

Beyond the Cliches

Beyond the Lights

by Hope Madden

Don’t let the Beyond the Lights trailer fool you. What looks like a by-the-numbers melodrama about selling your soul for success does follow a familiar trajectory, but it does a fine job with that journey.

Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) teeters at the edge of superstardom: she’s just won a Billboard award for her rap duet with hip hop giant Kid Culprit (a wonderfully sketchy Richard Colson Baker – better known as Cleveland’s own Machine Gun Kelly – in his screen debut), and her first album, releasing in days, is poised to break records. But the troubled star is buckling under the pressures and compromises.

In comes Kaz (Nate Parker), or “Officer Hero” as Noni’s fans come to call him.

Yes, his grounded do-gooder character wants Noni to respect herself, and the big question is whether the pull of fame will tear them apart, which is a wildly predictable set up. But writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) knows what she’s doing. She certainly cobbles together a familiar frame – part Gypsy, part Glitter, part Mahogany – but somehow the final product feels, if not fresh, at least relevant.

Mbatha-Raw stands out in her second powerful performance this year, after her stunning turn in Belle. She never resorts to clichés. She’s able to craft a character with both an entirely believable public persona as well as a blossoming personality of her own. There’s not a false note in the performance.

Parker’s less effective – in fact, though he’s turned in worthy performances throughout his career, here he’s strangely wooden. Still, the two have some chemistry and Mbatha-Raw is so compelling that you’re hard press to take your eyes off her anyway.

Not that Prince-Bythewood doesn’t offer plenty of reasons to look away. Her camera misses no opportunity to draw attention to Parker’s striking physique.

Minnie Driver impresses as the stage mother, and Prince-Bythewood’s script offers plenty for her sink her teeth into. Threadbare plot aside, the writing is sharp and the direction is incisive. The opening scene confirms that this is not going to be a color by numbers affair, and the filmmaker peppers scenes with strong imagery as she gives her cast room to breathe and create memorable, dimensional characters.

The weakness of the central plot is problematic, and though the filmmaker takes advantage of the trope to draw attention to some gaping holes in our current culture, it still leaves a stale aftertaste. But if the storyline isn’t memorable, Mbatha-Raw is – and she’s worth the ticket price.