Gina Prince-Bythewood describes her 25-year journey to producing The Woman King as a sustained struggle. But she believes that with this cast, led by the formidable Viola Davis, in this Braveheart-style historical action drama about female warriors in West Africa, the long haul was worthwhile.
Its fantastic to be able to fight as hard for your vision as a result, she tells Polygon just two days before the film's release.
Prince-Bythewood, who grew up in television in the 1990s, began her career as a writer-director with the 2000 film Love & Basketball. But Love & Basketballs' success opened the way for an industry that could never imagine a Black woman making any high-profile studio film, let alone a four-quadrant action film The Old Guard, which attracted the attention of Netflix viewers everywhere and Viola Davis.
Davis plays Nanisca, the protector of the Dahomey Kingdom headed by King Ghezo (John Boyega). Nanisca prepares her men for war, especially the deadly Izogie (Lashana Lynch), loyal Amenza (Sheila Atim), and hungry Nawi (Thuso Mbedu).
Prince-Bythewood discusses the required fight training to build a solid screen army, how the Agojies' real-life history energized the action, and what it meant to encourage Black actors to screen this way, for the first time.
Did you start with real-world history as a foundation of setpieces, or did you start with the action, then fact-check your choices?
Im looking at the screen and accepting it as truth, knowing what people think. But I knew we had a great script, written by Dana [Stevens], and I wanted to include as much truth as I could into it. This was the story that I wanted to tell people. And the truth made it a better story.
What is your personal interpretation of history that has boosted your idea?
There were a couple of things. One of the interesting things about these women is that they could legally beat men, so how did they do that? I learned about their training, the fact that they were trained 24/7 to not show pain, and how intimidating that can be. So when you're working with Lashana, you want to give her more and more and more.
And then the music and the dancing, learning that that was an integral part of the culture as well, where they would create these elaborate choreographed dances and songs to prepare for war, and to honor the king, and to reciprocate each other was exciting. I didnt know going in that I would get to play with that.
What amount of contemporary dance went into these scenes? At times the movements seem to be contemporary stepping.
So much of what they did has been passed down through generations. And we found this video that was shot in the 1960s of descendents of these women doing the traditional dances. So much of the aggression, the knife-slashing, the stabbing, it was all part of the choreography. So we were able to pull a number of the actual moves and inject more dance to give it roundness.
What happened when you first met Terence Blanchard, your composer? The sound is amazing, and it speaks loud in quiet moments.
As soon as I received the assignment, I knew I wanted to get Terence. And I knew we wanted Lebo M, who is well-known for The Lion King, to sing the songs. And then voice; I love voice, and it gives such emotion if used in the appropriate way.
I literally locked the film up a couple days before going to Scotland, because that was the only country in the world that had an orchestra. Everything was so rushed. The score was only like 75% finished, thats how rushed it was. But everything happened for a reason. He'd hand music off to somebody, run it to the orchestra, and then they're playing it. That was the energy for four days.
The songs say so much without being translated into English. What was the motivation for deciding not to communicate the actual lyrics?
I made that decision very early on. I knew we would do accented English [for the dialogue in the film], but I still desired an element of the real language within it? I thought in the chanting and the songs, we could do it, but the actors had to learn all of it!
What she is saying in the battle dance is, Fear not. Face it head on. Relentlessly we will fight. In the memorial to the king, the words are about honoring King Ghezo. When we are here to give her life, for our kingdom, and for each other. I thought about putting it on screen, but then I decided that I wouldnt want to take you out of it.
The cast youve assembled meets every requirement this film brings, but I was particularly struck by Your young lead, Thuso Mbedu. How did you know she could carry the film?
As soon as I saw her, I thought she was 16. I hadn't seen Thuso in anything. I knew that she was a lead in Underground Railroad, but it hadn't been released yet. Obviously Barry [Jenkins] is excellent with his portrayals. So I was intrigued.
Therefore, [casting Thuso, a South African actor], gave me an opportunity to give me the perfect balance I wanted. She was doing things that nobody else was doing, subtle things. She understood and accepted everything in her actions.
Viola Davis had a very clear idea of her character Nanisca, and the physical and emotional arc The Woman King should take her on. How did the relationship between you develop when you first began researching the material together?
Viola wrote a whole notebook of backstory. And while it should be for the actor, she shared some with me, and I had the other actors share their backstories. I like to have that knowledge for myself, and infuse some of it into the script.
Viola brought something that was not in the script, and it was so obvious two days before we began shooting, we were in rehearsal, and she said, Why are we concealing the fact that Im 56 years old? Im 56. She is at a time in her life where you question everything. She does what you can do, but it's for the character.
How do you motivate actors who otherwise would not engage in action work to excite the camera with such a level of force?
It was fantastic training. It started with me telling Viola and all of the other actors, You're going to be doing your own fighting and stunts. It's just better action.
Did you notice this on The Old Guard?
Yes. In The Old Guard, my example was the bathroom fight in M:I6, one of the greatest fights ever. Knowing what it brings to have longer takes, to know that [the person doing the fighting] is the actor, to get the performance in every moment that really taught me a lot.
Because [only] Lashana had ever done this before, what can I do to get a group of women who havent done anything on this level near the point where I can trust them with the action, and an audience can fully believe them? That was a leap of faith. Danny Hernandez, who I met on Old Guard, was my fight coordinator, because I saw the way he worked with actors. They trust him implicitly, and he inspires them.
We talked about how we couldnt fit them into our box. It was the hardest thing theyve ever done, six days a week, two times a day. It was also a part of the rehearsal process, to build character. Doing that to your mind and body changes how you walk, changes how you think about yourself. They became athletes. They became warriors. They became bonded. We were all going through this terrible thing together.
Did you find that the cultural specificity of the Dahomey allowed you to reconsider your actions, compared to the more contemporary setting of The Old Guard?
Slumdog Millionaire was also a model. I remember seeing it, and its cultural specificity drew me into a world I had no clue about. It didnt push me away it drew me in. I wanted people to feel the same way about this story and these women.
Prior to the shooting, their weapons were masterpieces. I got to go to the Fowler Museum [at UCLA] prior to shooting, and the archives have stuff from the actual kingdom of Dahomey. So the action was about demonstrating how women beat men, and the fact that they would soak them in brine to harden them, that was a weapon. Palm oil on the skin so their opponents couldnt grab hold of them that was a weapon.
The Agojie's training experiences add to the mix. How did you get to film the obstacle-course training sequence where the women smash through a trench of razor-sharp brambles?
[The Agojie] had to go through that three times in real life! We didnt have that much screen time.
I couldnt imagine how to shoot that because I knew you had to believe it as an audience. I couldnt send my actors through it, even though some would have been willing to. But everything on the outside, right in front of the camera, was real, and inside was manufactured brambles. They used 3D to create real brambles, and it changes the audience's mind.
The Woman King plays a candid portrayal of African slavery. Were there any difficulties in achieving that level of beauty in Hollywood?
It was something I knew we needed to disclose. Almost every society was involved in slavery in some way, and the difference here, prior to Europeans coming, was about prisoners of war. Never commerce, thats what Europeans brought to it. But we also set this film specifically at a time when the kingdom was at a crossroads, and Ghezo was having to decide [whether or not to capture other Africans and sell them to European slavers].
Because in America, half the kingdom wanted to end their involvement, while the other half wanted to keep it, because it boosted their wealth. And Ghezo had to make that decision. Not that we were taught that we came from a country so far beyond slavery. It can be a game changer. So im hoping, first, you go and see yourself reflected in a way you never saw before.
There's a scene in your first film, Love & Basketball, where Izogie braids Nawis' hair, which recalls a heart-to-heart connection between the two. Was the framing intentional, or does it reflect a larger drive in the way your work focuses on Black women?
I mean, until you said that it did not connect those two women! But initially in the script, I felt like that was a more interesting way to do the scene, so I changed to that. It's just a beauty in the quietness what they're talking about are women who want to be amazing, be the best. I hope that a throughline in my work will reimagine female and femininity.
Over the last ten years, you've had an important discussion in the cinematography world about proper, artistic lighting for Black skin, particularly dark skin. It's been so mishandled over the last century. Was this a conversation you discussed with your DP, Polly Morgan?
This was a huge undertaking. The first conversation I had with Polly was that we need to light our women better than they have ever seen before. Because there has been a history of Black actors being lit horribly. Right before we shot this film, I will not say the movie, but one of our actors was in a very respected studio, and she could not see what I was seeing. It was so offensive to me. I told Polly, This cannot happen in this film. It's idiotic.
Had you considered making a film like this in the past? Would it have been an option?
Yes. It was where I wanted to go early in my career. The industry hadnt caught up to me yet. In the film industry for women, the doors had been closed for a long time, certainly in the film industry for women. It wasnt until Wonder Woman and the success Patty [Jenkins] had with that first one that absolutely opened the door. [Pitching those types of movies earlier in my career]
I switched my mindset from I wish I could do that to Im going to do it. So I was able to take my argument to the next level. Because it was Marvel that led me to [Sony and Marvels Silver Sable and Black Cat film] Silver and Black. And I knew exactly how to fix that script. But there was a reticence as we continue to go on where I felt like, I dont believe this will happen in The Old Guard.
It's a big deal to walk away from something like that. And there's a part of me that was like, You don't walk away from something like that. And I recognized it from the beginning. It's all about having the courage to walk away when you're not seeing that you can do your best work in an environment. But when The Woman King came up, there was a trust there.
You've evolved into a bit of a journeyman filmmaker who can't be defined by one type of film, which is becoming less and less common today. So this question is even more exciting: What do you see the future?
The Old Guard merges right into The Woman King after four years of neglect. I have two projects, and I have to choose between them. Theres one really big one that has been established Ill just say its in space.
We love having space.
My goal is to encompass every genre. Disrupt genre. It's an incredible short story based on an incredible short story. And then the other is, after these two big films, I've been wanting to write a more personal story returning to the beginning.
The Woman King is a popular film, with a lot of discussion about it being the kind of movie studios that rarely gamble on. Did it make you feel good? Is it the movie everybody wants to see?
The pressure I felt on this one was unbelievably high, because the actors trusted the vision implicitly and trusted me and gave me everything, so I could not disappoint them. It's exciting, but also terrifying, because doing something that hasn't been done before is everything you could ask for as an artist. People understand and respond to it, and people are more aware of the film's significance.