Oscar spotlight: Don’t sleep on ‘The Woman King’s’ Thuso Mbedu in wide-open Best Supporting Actress race

[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers about “The Woman King.” Read at your own risk.]

If there is any Oscar category that’s still seemingly unsettled, it’s Best Supporting Actress. Michelle Williamsdecision to upgrade to lead for “The Fabelmans” has not only made the race anyone’s game but also provided even more opportunity for first-time hopefuls — who dominate the field — to break through. It’s for that reason that you shouldn’t count out Thuso Mbedu, whose electrifying breakthrough turn in “The Woman King” — her film debut — could (and definitely should) make the South African native a formidable contender in this wide-open category.

Written by Dana Stevens and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, “The Woman King” is about an elite military unit of all-female warriors called the Agojie that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey, which was located within present-day Benin, in the 18th and 19th centuries. While Oscar winner Viola Davis (“Fences”) headlines the 1823-set film as General Nanisca, a fictionalized leader of the Agojie who trains the next generation of warriors to combat their enemies, it is Mbedu’s Nawi who serves as a surrogate for viewers throughout.

SEE Screenwriter Dana Stevens on wanting ‘The Woman King’ to be ‘an empowering story about women fighting back’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

Nawi is a strong-willed, unruly 19-year-old girl who has always dreamed of being an Agojie. After she refuses to agree to an arranged marriage, she is disowned by her adoptive father, who offers to her to Dahomey’s new king, Ghezo (John Boyega), so she can vie to join his military guard. Even though she possesses the ambition, she initially lacks the discipline required to fully transform into a warrior. But under the guidance of her mentor, Izogie (Lashana Lynch, who would also make a worthy Best Supporting Actress nominee), and a stern Nanisca, Nawi is able to mature and prove that she is one of the most mettlesome, proficient warriors in the group.

A vibrant Mbedu embodies Nawi’s grit and stubbornness with equal precision, while also putting her vulnerability on clear display. “I did not have an easy life,” Nawi, teary-eyed, tells Nanisca after the latter schools the naïf about her responsibility as a recruit. The crack in Mbedu’s voice here perfectly captures the pain that drives part of Nawi’s desire to become an Agojie. For her, it’s not just about wanting to defend her kingdom on the battlefield. Given away as a child, she longs to experience the feeling of being wanted, feared and appreciated of which she has been deprived her entire life; she yearns to “be with the others” and enjoy the sense of sisterhood that being part of this military regiment offers.

The crux of her arc comes when she, in perhaps the film’s most pivotal scene, learns that Nanisca is her long-lost birth mother. After Nawi proudly reports to the general that she heard of a looming attack by their enemy, the Oyo, the latter reveals that she got pregnant after being gang-raped in Oyo captivity and had embedded a shark tooth in her baby’s left shoulder before giving her away. As she grabs Nawi by the shoulder to extract the tooth from her skin, the latter declares in denial, “It isn’t me.” Here she is, feeling good about herself because she just made a crucial discovery, and then all this big information is thrown at her: that she was the product of rape and that, at least in her mind, she was basically discarded.

This moment is executed meticulously by Mbedu, who slowly processes the information before reacting to it. Once the realization has fully sunk in, she flinches her head back and widens her eyes in terror, before walking away with tears streaming down her face as the feeling of being rejected all over again kicks in. If there is any single scene that should secure the actor an Oscar nomination, it’s this one.

SEE 5 reasons why ‘The Woman King’ cast will receive ensemble nomination at SAG Awards

As of this writing, Mbedu is just outside the top 10 in 11th place in our Best Supporting Actress odds. Since she is a relatively new face to most moviegoers, her chances of getting shortlisted will most likely hinge on how well “The Woman King” performs overall. While the action film is currently forecasted to accrue only one bid, for costume design, our odds might be underestimating it. It is the type of old-school, crowd-pleasing historical epic that is rarely to be found in the current market but over which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences used to go gaga (see: Best Picture winners “Braveheart” and “Gladiator”). What’s more, it’s a box office success and critical hit with an early release date — Sept. 16 in the U.S. — that has allowed it to get ahead of the pack and boasts the star power of Davis, one of the most respected actors and best campaigners in the biz. Should “The Woman King” defy expectations and take the Oscar nominations by storm, it’s hard to see Mbedu, who is arguably a co-lead to Davis, not be swept up in the love.

Oscar odds for Best Supporting Actress
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