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Viola Davis Has Entered the Action-Heroine Pantheon

With ‘The Woman King,’ the legendary actress has leveled up from a master of drama to a bona fide action star

Sony Pictures/Ringer illustration

Early in The Woman King, obstinate recruit Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) is told that she could be easily mistaken for a child. She fires back at her commanding officer: “You look like a regular old woman to me.” It’s a good comeback, but also a blatant lie. Neither a quick glance nor a long stare would reveal anything remotely regular about General Nanisca, the legendary military leader Viola Davis plays in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historical action drama. First seen rising ominously from a stretch of tall grass, flanked on both sides by a formidable regiment, Davis looks hard as granite, like a mighty statue brought to life. And she has a gaze of such focused intensity that any enemy who dares lock eyes with her might risk turning into stone themselves.

Nanisca is the leader of the Agojie, an elite, all-female force that defended the Kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa from the 1600s until the dawn of the 20th century. So traditionally exciting are the exploits of this real-life squadron that one might wonder why it took so long to see them dramatized on the big screen … before remembering that the story of heroic African women might have previously been a tough sell to the average Hollywood executive.

That’s evidently not the case with audiences, though: The Woman King is already a hit, surpassing studio estimates this past weekend and scoring a perfect A+ CinemaScore from opening-night viewers. Its success shouldn’t be surprising. For all the novelty of its historical focus, The Woman King is rousingly old-fashioned, even conventional—a mix of the clash-and-clang swordplay of something like Gladiator and the basic-training interpersonal conflict of the year’s biggest hit, Top Gun: Maverick. Adding to the crowd’s satisfaction is the sight of the film’s heroes squaring off against a truly detestable enemy: the slave traders the Agojie opposed.

At the film’s center, anchoring a strong ensemble that includes John Boyega, Lashana Lynch, and Sheila Atim, is Oscar-winning royalty, as we’ve never seen her before. The Woman King is Davis’s late entry into the action-heroine pantheon, an overdue opportunity for an actress who’s perfected cutting remarks and stares to finally wield an actual blade. This might just be her Taken moment. At 57, Davis is the age her Widows costar Liam Neeson was when he moved from mostly prestige dramatic assignments and supporting roles as wise mentor figures into his second act as an ass-kicker of a certain age and with a certain set of skills.

Make no mistake, Davis has certainly logged some hours in the action-movie trenches. Over the past decade or so, she’s carved out a blockbuster side hustle as military and government shot callers. While her award-winning work tends to highlight her vulnerable side, she’s mastered a certain icy, no-nonsense professionalism for supporting roles in big-budget projects like Ender’s Game, Knight and Day, and Blackhat. The culmination of that fork in her career arc is probably Amanda Waller, cold-blooded Suicide Squad wrangler of the DC universe. All these movies established Davis as, in so many words, someone you don’t fuck with. She practically trademarked a withering intolerance for bullshit.

On the small screen, too, were hints of Davis’s fitness for playing an intimidating leader. What is her widely praised lead role on How to Get Away With Murder if not a different kind of general, molding law students into cutthroat courtroom warriors? Annalise Keating, as Davis played her for six juicily melodramatic seasons, was a gravitational force—a legal luminary feared and revered by just about every other character on screen. The show lived and breathed off her dressing-down severity, while cementing the star as a take-no-shit icon. (That famous GIF of Davis snatching her bag and leaving comes from Murder.)

As steely as Davis can be in roles that draw on that skill set (including her recent, Oscar-nominated turn in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, playing a legendary blues singer unwilling to give music biz exploiters one inch, lest they take a mile), her hard exterior often masks something softer, or at least rawer. Davis has a way of letting her characters’ rage emerge from a sense of weariness, as though toughened by the moral and emotional burdens they shoulder. The most prominent example of that—and maybe the most crucial precedent to her marquee graduation in The Woman King—is her starring turn in Steve McQueen’s electrifying Widows. Davis plays the bereaved widow of a career criminal, forced to plan her own heist after her husband is killed during one of his. Here, Davis sculpts a headstrong heroine from the remains of a shattered life, shaving off her heartache and fear out of necessity, emerging reborn from the darkness of what’s been piled on top of her.

There’s an element of that in The Woman King, too. The film gradually reveals Nanisca as a survivor who has channeled the horror of her own experiences into imperative; we come to understand the war the Agojie has waged against a rampaging rival empire and European slavers as a heroic campaign born out of trauma. “This time, it’s personal,” goes the hackneyed tagline of countless action movies. The Woman King redeems the idea by resting its personal stakes on Davis and her transference of suffering into cathartic fury. Every swing of her sword feels psychologically motivated, an act of righteous retribution.

Physically, the performance is a transformation: Hours a day for weeks on end, Davis subjected her body to superhero boot camp, emerging with oaky forearms and convincing martial-arts dexterity. Yet she remains too good of an actor to bury herself in that regimen, to let the gym time do the acting for her. The quavering emotion of her work in awards fare like Fences or Doubt is right there beneath the surface of her newly forged sinew. Like Neeson, but more so, she lets her vulnerability shine through her strength, informing it even.

Maybe that’s the stealth truth of Nawi’s retort early into the movie. By no stretch of the imagination is Nanisca a “regular old woman.” But with Davis in the role, she’s recognizably human—a flesh-and-blood person and a legend rolled into one, brought to life by a performance that productively blurs the line between acting and pure movie-star presence. Her ferocity anchors this sturdy Hollywood entertainment; with any luck, her reign in that arena is just beginning.

A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor based in Chicago. His work has appeared in such publications as The A.V. Club, Vulture, and Rolling Stone. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.