In theaters this weekend, The Woman King tells the story of the Agojie, a group of all-female warriors that protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th centuries. Inspired by true events, the Dahomey significantly valued women, with all official roles balanced by both a male and female leader. Oscar-winner Viola Davis stars as General Nanisca, who is tasked with preparing the next generation for battle against an enemy that seeks to destroy their way of life. At the film’s helm is director Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose body of work focuses on the stories of Black women. Known for creating character-driven films such as Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees, and Beyond the Lights, Prince-Bythewood spoke with Boxoffice Pro about her female-driven historical epic in advance of Sony Pictures’ September 16th theatrical release.
Actor/producer Maria Bello first pitched the story back in 2015 at the Women Making History Awards, where she was honoring Viola Davis. How did the project evolve from there and when did it come to you?
It came to me after [producers] Viola Davis and Cathy Schulman had been trying to get this [film] set up, written, and developed for six years. I read the script right after I finished [directing] The Old Guard, and just knew within five minutes that this was my next movie. It was a story I hadn’t seen before, a story I felt like I had to tell, and I think more importantly, a story I knew I could tell, given my body of work. From there, it was really about fighting for that green light and putting together an ensemble of incredibly dope actors that were exciting to me and hopefully exciting to an audience. Also women who would put in the work, the real work, to embody these characters in the right way. That’s what we got. Then of course, Viola Davis, spearheading all of this and being able to be that movie star we needed to get the final green light.
How was that process? Working with Viola Davis as producer on the project and your collaboration together?
It was an incredible collaboration. She is so smart with story, and not everybody is, so it was a joy to bounce things off each other. She has great integrity, great respect for the process, and had great respect for me as a director. So much trust. When someone gives you that it’s so inspiring. I always believe I bring my best, but Viola is greatness. You want to get to that level. You want to work hard to meet her there. You want to put people around her who will do the same, not only in the cast, but also with the department heads. People that are going to bring their ‘A game’ every single minute. She does that for everybody. She inspires and she’s hella funny. That’s one thing that people don’t know about; Viola’s very funny and just a cool person.
Did your research process for the film inform or influence the look and style?
The research influenced everything from casting, to production design, to the music, to the red dirt. Akin McKenzie, who’s our production designer, did the deepest dive into the research and was able to separate what was truth and what was written by the wrong point of view. Things like the red dirt and the lushness of what this kingdom was, as opposed to the look and feel of Ouidah [a port city on the coast of Western Africa]. It was all based on descriptions of people that were really there. That’s the exciting thing, the world-building. Also, we wanted to create a 360-degree world that the actors could play in. It’s 1823, I don’t want you to look around and see cars. I don’t want airplanes up ahead, so we built that whole palace, which was an amazing set. The actors loved it; they were barefoot the entire time, except for John [Boyega, who] was the only character, based on research, who had sandals.
You’ve previously spoken about the fight to tell stories that focus on Black women. Do you feel like the industry is evolving or is there still a lot of work to be done?
Yes and Yes. The fact that this film is coming out is a miracle, but a beautiful miracle. It took a lot of people fighting. It took vision and fighting for that vision. It’s here, but that’s it. We haven’t had a film like this before. My hope is that people love this film and it’s successful, because success begets success in this industry. I don’t want to be able to count on one hand, or one finger, how many historical epics are made about Africa when there’s so many stories to be told. Not just about Africa, but other cultures as well. There’s enough sameness. I love Braveheart and I love Slumdog Millionaire. I love movies that are culturally specific and bring me into a world that I didn’t know, but I’m identifying with these characters, no matter what they look like. Every culture should be able to have that: to see yourself heroically and have people identify with people that look like you.
I can’t wait to see this epic on the largest screen possible.
Exactly! Why is it important for audiences to get that communal experience in seeing the film?
I love going to the theater, sitting down in my seat and having the lights go down. You’re enveloped suddenly and it is that communal thing of everybody laughing at the same time, crying at the same time, clapping at the same time. That’s a beautiful thing. It’s so connective. As a filmmaker, I spend so much time focused on the look and feel of a film, the details. Then two weeks to three weeks of sound mixing the film. I want you to hear it a specific way. I love working with Dolby Atmos and being able to be creative in that way. We had Dolby Vision on this film and IMAX, so I’ve seen it in both those formats. The bigness of film is what I love so much. The best way to experience a film is in the theater.
Do you have a favorite moviegoing memory or experience?
E.T. was the first time I cried in a movie. I think I was nine. I was shocked at the fact that something that wasn’t real, could make me feel that deeply. It was really at that point that I started writing short stories and thinking, ‘I want to do this’.