'The Woman King': Viola Davis shares the 'fight' to make historical action movie

·6-min read

Starring Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch, Thuso Mbedu and Sheila Atim, and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the captivating and epic film The Woman King premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where Davis was honest about the “fight” it took to get this movie made.

“There are no words to quantify what that fight is,” Davis said at a panel discussion hosted by Twitter Canada.

“Everyone thinks about the movie and its inception, and then they see it on the screen, they don’t talk about the process in between, if you were a fly on the wall and you could see every time you’re walking in that room you’re hustling for your worth, you’re fighting for simple stories, you’re fighting for the hair, the makeup, what we look like,...fighting for all these actors.”

“It’s not over yet because guess what, if you don’t plop down money and see that film in the opening weekend, you’re not going to see us again,...you’re not going to see Black females leading a movie again if you don’t support it.”

The Woman King is based on the Agojie in the 19th century, the all-female military regiment responsible for protecting the African Kingdom of Dahomey from European colonizers. Davis plays Nanisca, the General of the Agojie. While you may initially believe this is fictional, this is actually based on real history.

(Courtesy of TIFF)
(Courtesy of TIFF)

“This script was so unusual, I’ve never read a script that was so epic in scale, but also the characters are so well flushed out,” Polly Morgan, director of photography for the film, told Yahoo Canada. “There was almost an ensemble cast of all these well developed women and just the balance between the big set pieces and all the action, combined with the intimate drama.”

“The women really spent a very long time training,...they had to eat special diets and they worked out like four hours every day, and I think I really just wanted to shoot it in a way that shows off their physicality.”

In collaboration with director Prince-Bythewood, Morgan stressed that the goal was to have very strong colours throughout the film, and “really illustrate the beauty of Black skin.”

“When we were talking about the look of the movie, we wanted the colours to be really strong, we wanted to show Africa off as this very rich and lush place, and we wanted to really illustrate the beauty of Black skin,” Morgan said. “We really wanted to show off how beautiful these women were but not in a way that felt overly glossy or commercial, but felt still very raw and authentic to the fact that this is based on true events and it is based on history.”

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 15: Sheila Atim, Viola Davis, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Julius Tennon attend THE WOMAN KING Special Screening at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on September 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Sony Pictures Entertainment)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 15: Sheila Atim, Viola Davis, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Julius Tennon attend THE WOMAN KING Special Screening at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on September 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Sony Pictures Entertainment)

'It was important for this film to be ours'

For Viola Davis, she stressed the critical importance of not only having this story told, but having it told by Black women in front of and behind the camera.

“It is important within the context of the film but it’s important in the context of this world because there is no way that change and progress can happen if you don’t take risks,” Davis said at the Twitter Canada panel. “As Black people and especially as Black women, we’ve been given insurmountable odds, our voices have been stifled, we haven’t been seen, we’ve been invisible for so long.”

It was important for this film to be ours. It’s important for there not to be a white saviour, it’s important for it to be led by all Black females with dark skin… We are at a pivotal time in our culture where you have to show up and be seen and heard, and you have to take the hit, whatever it is.Viola Davis

Lashana Lynch added that she feels she has a “responsibility” to dismantle the trope of “the strong Black woman.”

“I’ve been a part of some projects whereby I’ve been required to play the strong Black woman and I feel like the filmmakers, the producers, the studio don’t actually know what it takes to be that,” Lynch said. “In my process in learning more about who I am and what the strong Black woman trope means for the world, I have a responsibility to dismantle that trope through my art.”

“The directors that I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked with some nice ones, they just don’t know what they’re asking of me, they don’t know where the strength comes from… So for this, to work with Gina Prince-Bythewood,...I don’t need to come in and explain myself… I felt like, we can all just arrive and feel comfortable and at home and relaxed knowing that we as Black women and Black people are already taken care of and supported.”

TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 09: (L-R) Guest, Gersha Phillips, Polly Morgan, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Terilyn A. Shropshire, Zoyi Lindiwe Muendane and Terence Blanchard attend
TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 09: (L-R) Guest, Gersha Phillips, Polly Morgan, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Terilyn A. Shropshire, Zoyi Lindiwe Muendane and Terence Blanchard attend "The Woman King" Photo Call on September 09, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

Polly Morgan also indicated that Prince-Bythewood was particularly clear about who would make up the crew for the film.

“She sort of said to me, ‘I don't want these women to look around and just be surrounded by white men,’” Morgan said. “I think it's the case for any production where, when you have actors, vulnerable people on set,...you want them to look around and see representations of everybody in the world.”

When speaking about what she wants the audience to take away from the film, Davis said it’s about supporting your inner voice.

“What I want people to take from this movie is that your inner voice, belonging to yourself, is your warrior fuel,” Davis said. “The fight is, you’re going to take the risk, you may walk in the room, you may get rejected again, and again, and again,...but that one time you win is going to bee worth it if it’s connected to that voice inside of you that’s untouched by everything else in the world.”

The Woman King is in theatres Sept. 16