The Woman King starring Viola Davis as a great warrior and leader of women warriors known as the Agojie in the African kingdom of Dahomey is in theaters now. Directed by Love and Basketball’s Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Woman King is filled with action and heart. It’s the type of Hollywood film Black women have not directed or starred in. That is not lost on its cast.
South African actress Thuso Mbedu whom director Barry Jenkins tapped to star in his epic limited Amazon Prime Video series The Underground Railroad adapted from Colson Whitehead’s award-winning book never imagined she would film a movie like this in her backyard. “I didn't know when I got the role that we were going to shoot it in South Africa,” she tells EBONY. “I was excited by the fact that we spent the first two weeks of production in my home province [KwaZulu-Natal].”
Like many people, Mbedu, who plays the protégé warrior Nawi, was also unfamiliar with the women warriors of Dahomey. “Never heard of them prior,” she shares. “So it's a project that I felt was very important because it speaks to a certain African identity, which had been erased from most of our history. South Africa was colonized by the Brits and so our curriculum reflected that. And it was sad that I got to know of some of that supporting African history in America.”
Though it contains historical elements, The Woman King is not a history lesson. It is a film that required a lot of its cast. Davis has spoken extensively about how many hours a day she trained to shine as Agojie general Nanisca. For Lashana Lynch, who made headlines for playing an actual 007 agent in the Bond film No Time To Die, getting in physical shape to play the fierce warrior and heir apparent Izogie was essential to mastering all aspects of the film.
“We needed to get into the physical mindset so we knew we could even do it,” she explains. Once that was accomplished, she says “we knew that our minds could push past many boundaries that were going to flag up as the shoot went on.”
In the film Izogie is a revered big sister figure to all the recruits but especially Nawi whom she often guides as Viola’s Nanisca pushes her. Reflecting sisterhood for Black women in that relationship is one thing Lynch is most proud of.
“I am really happy that there was that level of sisterhood within those two characters because it reminded us why we need to connect with our younger selves and younger people,” she shares. “With all the nuances included within this film, sisterhood will stand out because we rely on it so much. As Black women we need it to live and to be our better selves.”
Sheila Atim, who stood out as boxing trainer Buddhakan in Halle Berry’s directorial debut Bruised and plays Amenza, Nanisca’s friend and confidante, in The Woman King, also leans into the sisterhood element of the film. “They don’t always see eye to eye,” she says of Amenza and Nanisca’s friendship. “But that sisterhood is vital to see to bring nuance to these characters, to bring humanity, to bring understanding. We’re all fighting for something, whether it’s very literally on a battlefield or whether it’s with your best friend across from you.”
With the Agojie, Atim also notes that “each member came from somewhere different, and they had their own story and they brought that with them. So to see these interpersonal relationships, and then to understand that they’re all different, but as a group, they came together to be this army. That they could all be united. That they could fight together … Those interpersonal relationships are really important [because they] highlight the unity these women have as an army.”
John Boyega, who also stars in the film Breaking released in August, says he took on the role of King Ghezo in The Woman King because “it was really important in terms of me working with Viola Davis. I’ve always wanted to be on set with her. I think it’s also important in terms of the kind of story that’s being told, the fact that there are so many women that are being empowered in this type of film.”
Boyega also had praise for Prince-Bythewood’s direction. “She has a good balance between the artistic and the technical. She knows how to talk to artists and give them accurate notes for a performance. She doesn't beat around the bush,” he says. “She doesn’t ever make you feel distressed when you’re struggling. She keeps it about the performance, about the actor. I really, really like that.”
“She has a clear picture of what it is that she wants and knows how to communicate in a way that she gets it out of you,” adds Mbedu.
It’s Prince-Bythewood’s clarity in honoring and valuing Black women that Lynch feels is the real difference maker in The Woman King and perhaps the industry as a whole going forward. “Gina did a really good job in ensuring that there were moments where we humanized these women, and we took care of their feelings and their emotions, and we saw them really live lives. We didn't just see them be warriors,” she says. “In the future, I hope that filmmakers really pay attention to those themes so that they can continue to include them.”