How 'The Woman King' makes Hollywood history with an incredible true story
One of the most pronounced effects of Marvel's "Black Panther" was that it allowed a race of people who've long been underserved by Hollywood to envision an alternative history not rooted in victimhood.
In Wakanda, Black audiences were able to imagine an African nation that had triumphed over colonialism. And through the Dora Milaje — the elite team of female warriors who defended the fictional kingdom — moviegoers met an army of powerful women holding their own against men.
In fact, the Dora Milaje were modeled after the Agojie warrior women (also known as the Dahomey Amazons), who defended the western African kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin) in the 1800s and were the dominant military force in the society. Now, the Agojie are the subject of a new film, "The Woman King," directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood from a story by actor Maria Bello and screenwriter Dana Stevens.
By 1823, the kingdom of Dahomey was under the thumb of the Western-influenced, richer Oyo empire. It was forced to pay tribute in the form of virgins, guns and captives to be sold into slavery to European colonizers.
"You had this sort of David and Goliath situation where the slightly smaller nation decided to beat back on this," said Cathy Schulman, a producer on the film. "And of course it was the Agojie who led the fight."
The idea to make a movie about the Agojie was born during a 2016 trip to Benin where Bello first learned of the warriors during a tour of the Palais des Rois d'Abomey, the royal palaces of the Dahomey kingdom in the town of Abomey.
"She said, 'Can you imagine if one day we actually made a movie about this amazing group of female soldiers who caused such an act of resistance that slavery paused for a time?'" recalled Schulman, who was then an executive at STX Entertainment.
Schulman pitched it to STX's upper brass who agreed that it sounded like a good idea, but weren't willing to offer more than $5 million to finance it, doubting it would have much reach at the box office.
Nevertheless, they worked out an initial concept and put a pitch together that "made it through many different rounds in many different places," before they were finally able to sell it to Sony Tristar. "It was a constant push and fight to convince people that we deserve a big budget, that we deserved to tell a story like this," said Bythewood.
In many ways, the film is only able to exist now because of the massive success of the Marvel film. "'Black Panther' absolutely was a game changer," said Bythewood. "It shifted culture and proved something that I think we all knew but that the industry didn't understand, which is the power of us as an audience."
"For me, 'Black Panther' was this whole exploration of 'Can you imagine an African nation with agency to become stupendous?'" said Schulman. "And I thought, 'But wait, there is an African nation that had its own agency that became stupendous. We don't have to make believe.'"
Diving into history
Bythewood was originally approached in 2016 to join the project as a writer but couldn't commit due to a scheduling conflict. She told the team to circle back after they had a script, which came two years later. "As soon as I read the script, I knew immediately it was a project I had to do," said Bythewood. "It was exciting to dive into the research to really understand who these women were and what this culture was.
"The biggest eye-opener was how much misinformation there is about these women and this culture given that so much of their history was written from the colonizer's point of view. So it was really about separating the texts that were from that point of view, which were so disparaging and disrespectful, from the truth."
"You're looking at a European colonialist describing a place they're going to versus getting the story from the voices of the people themselves," said Schulman. "And so it was trying to read multiple sources and trying to find a like-minded perception of things. "
Alongside production designer Akin McKenzie, Bythewood did a deep dive on the Dahomey kingdom, gathering a stack of books on the subject and its society, hunting down texts that were out of print and sourcing photos from the time period.
"I'd read this article in the Washington Post that was written by a descendant of these women and so we reached out to him," said Bythewood of Princeton professor Leonard Wantchekon. "He's an academic and scholar about Benin and the kingdom and he was such an incredible consultant for us. He has a whole team that we were able to reach out to anytime we had a question about food, dress, politics in the kingdom … they knew everything."
She also sought information about female warriors throughout history, including high-ranking women in the American military to flesh out credible backstories for the characters. "Given the personal stories within this film, I did a lot of research on what happened in Rwanda in terms of the genocide and the rapes and the children that came out of that," she said.
Finding the cast
Viola Davis had been attached to the film since early days when she was approached by Bello and Schulman to star. She came aboard as a producer and lead, and helped to develop the script. "She really wanted to champion it from the beginning to the end and so she was part of the solution all the time," said Schulman. "She helped by doing it for never enough money and never enough time because she could cheer everybody up."
"I don't know one director who does not want to work with Viola Davis," said Bythewood. "Because she's great and you don't always get to touch greatness in your life. She's everything that you'd hope she'd be: she's just a good person, incredibly passionate and intense, inspires others, is completely giving to her fellow actors. She pushes everyone to bring their best self every day, every moment, on set."
Lashana Lynch, John Boyega, Sheila Atim and rising talent Thuso Mbedu round out the core cast. Both Lynch and Boyega came onto Bythewood's radar after she saw aspects of their personalities outside of acting.
The director saw Lynch's speech at the 2020 Essence Black Women in Hollywood awards ceremony and was moved by her commitment to telling empowering stories about Black women. "How she spoke about what she wanted to put into the world, where she came from and what was important in her work in terms of representing Black women was inspiring and I just knew she was someone I wanted to work with."
As for Boyega, Bythewood came across a viral video of him imploring Black men to protect Black women at a London George Floyd protest and decided to approach him for the role of King Ghezo. "Obviously he normally [is offered] lead roles but he wanted to use his clout and his power to help get this made and give these characters a platform that we normally don't get."
"The Underground Railroad" star Mbedu auditioned virtually. "As soon as her face popped up on my Zoom screen, I immediately cared about her," said Bythewood. "She has such an innate vulnerability, her chops are insane. I really think she's a generational talent."
Assembling a team
The film was shot in South Africa, where Mbedu is from. "It was exactly where we needed to be," said Bythewood of the country. "For me, this is an epic story and I wanted to be able to show the scope and the beauty of the continent and we could only get that by shooting there."
"I wanted to create a 360 world. Since this is a period piece, I wanted [the actors] to look around and only see this world, not green screens everywhere or cars and airplanes. I wanted them to be able to have their hands and feet in the soil and they wanted that too."
"The first half, when we were up in the Cape, was really hard because we were working in the jungle and we didn't have internet, [cell service] and we had lots of bugs, spiders, spider bites, snakes," said Schulman. "It was physically the hardest thing that any of us had done and it was pretty amazing to watch this troupe of women behind and in front of the camera go out to do that every day."
Having a team of predominately women both behind and in front of the camera to lean on lent a sense of camaraderie to the shoot. "It was the most diverse crew I've ever had and everyone behind the camera was equally passionate," said Bythewood.
"It was a great experience, a total sisterhood," Schulman said. "We were all stuck together for so long and it bonded everybody, and I think you really see it in the movie. You really see the team that Gina built. She's first and foremost a basketball team captain and she really invested in each member of that team so that when they got out there on the court, so to speak, they could really play together."
"So much of this film is about that innate warrior within us that oftentimes is never celebrated," said Bythewood. "And so for women to be in this environment where they have a voice that is respected and heard, you see people opening up and blossoming and getting that swagger."
"It indicates a different way to manage a production because it wasn't authoritarian and it wasn't bombastic, it was so stealth," said Schulman. "The female management came to do the work and make it great and champion the entire crew and there was very little trauma. And very little hierarchy. And I think that that was really motivating for people, male and female alike, just to realize that it can be a very collaborative, calming, exciting experience."
Turning actors into warriors
To develop the Agojie's fighting style for the film's action sequences, Bythewood turned to stunt coordinator Daniel Hernandez, whom she first worked with on 2020's "The Old Guard."
"He was probably my third call when I got this film because I knew what I wanted for the action," said Bythewood. "I knew there were going to be epic sequences like 'Braveheart' or 'Gladiator' but also raw, visceral, character- and story-driven [sequences] and that meant having the actors do their own fighting and stunts. I trusted that Danny could get them there even though only Lashana had ever done stunts or action before.
"We needed to design a fighting style that was true to what they were doing in the 1800s. The Agojie were very into hand-to-hand combat and fighting with machetes in close combat. And they legit beat men. So how do we create a style where that's believable?"
All of the actors were game for the rigorous training, which stretched across five months. "When I spoke to all of them, I laid down the gauntlet and every single one of them didn't blink," said Bythewood. "[They were like] 'I will do everything I can to embody these characters.' And it's one thing to say that, it's another thing to commit to training for months at a time, six days a week, a couple of times a day. It's a lot. But it also is a beautiful way to build character."
Making an impact
"This was the toughest shoot of my career," Bythewood added. "It was also the most beautiful. But to get through it with a film that I'm proud of is a really important thing to me."
She says she's most proud of the film's ability to correct the record and offer a perspective of Black people and particularly Black women that is rooted in resilience, strength and power.
"How much of our history has been hidden from us, ignored, tucked away?" Bythewood asked. "I think it's most tragic for those of us growing up in America where our history starts with enslavement. We grow up in this country where the majority of our images, especially when it takes place in the past, is that of victims. We never learn about how we fought back. And to have a story like this to show that we literally come from warriors, I wish I had this when I was a little girl.
"How many white kids get to grow up and always see themselves as heroes in everything they see? For us to be able to do the same and see it constantly will absolutely be a game changer for us. It's going to take some time to undo so much of the damage that has been done."
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