Gina Prince-Bythewood describes her 25-year journey to directing 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 worth it.
Just two days before the films' release, it's incredible to have to fight so hard for your vision.
Prince-Bythewood, who grew up in television in the early 1990s, began her career as a writer-director with the 2000 feature Love & Basketball. This success opened the way for an industry that couldnt wait to see a Black woman star in any high-profile studio production, let alone in four-quadrant action blockbusters like The Old Guard. According to Netflix viewers everywhere, Prince-Bythewood would happily accept the job.
Davis plays Nanisca, a defender of the Dahomey Kingdom led by King Ghezo (John Boyega). Nanisca is trained for Spartan-like deadlines, and Nanisca prepares her soldiers for war, including the deadly Izogie (Lashana Lynch), loyal Amenza (Sheila Atim), and hungry trainee Nawi (Thuso Mbedu). Prince-Bythewood has been waiting for a painting for two and a half decades.
Prince-Bythewood discusses the intensive combat training required to build a solid screen army in a deep dive interview with Polygon, how the Agojies' real-life history energized the action, and what it meant to bring Black actors to screen this way, perhaps for the first time.
Did you start with real-world history as a foundation of set pieces, 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 say. But Braveheart is in my top 10 of all time. Ive seen it 100 times. That was the template. But I knew that we had this great script, written by Dana [Stevens], and that it was my job as the director to translate it into the script. More truth, more authenticity in who these women were, who the kingdom was, and what was happening around that a big David-versus-Goliath conflict.
What is your personal interpretation of history that has bolstered your vision?
There were a couple of things. One of the remarkable things about these women is that they legit beat men, so how did they do that? And I learned about their training, the fact that they were trained 24/7 to not show anything, and how terrifying that can be. So think about if you are fighting someone, you're stabbing them, and how incredible that can be. When you work with Lashana, you want her to be more and more.
And then the music and the dancing, discovering that this was also an integral part of the culture, where they would perform these elaborate choreographed dances and songs to prepare for war, and to honor the king, and to reciprocate with one another was exciting. I didnt expect to get to play with that until the end.
What sort of modern dance was involved in those scenes? At times the moves seem like contemporary stepping.
This is a classic dance form, as much of what they did has been passed on for generations. And we found this footage from the 1960s of descendants of these women performing the traditional dances. All of the aggression, the knife-slashing, the stabbing, everything was part of the choreography. So we were able to pull a few of the actual moves and inject more dance to give it roundness.
What happened after you spoke with your composer Terence Blanchard? The sound is terrific, and it speaks volumes in quiet scenes.
As soon as I got the job, I knew I wanted to use Terence. He is absolutely brilliant. And we got Lebo M, who is well-known for The Lion King. And the conversations about what we wanted it to be, were incredible. We wanted to create a musical score that isn't based on music, but that's used in the right way. So it seemed like a lot of fun, but would we be able to achieve that?
Everything was so rushed. The score was only a few days after I went to Scotland, because that was the only country in the world that had an orchestra. Everything happened for a reason. He would literally hand off music to someone, give it to the orchestra, and then play it. That was the energy for four days.
The songs convey so much without being translated into English. What was the motivation for opting not to communicate the actual lyrics?
I made that decision pretty early on. I knew we would use accented English [for the dialogue in the film], but I still wanted an element of the real language within it? And I thought in the chanting and the songs, we could do it, which meant 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 tribute to the king, the words are about honoring King Ghezo. When we are here to give her life, for our kingdom, and for one another, I thought about translating it for screen.
The cast you have assembled fulfills every demand this film receives, but I was especially blown away by Your young lead, Thuso Mbedu. How did you know she would be able to carry the film?
As soon as I saw her, I knew she was the one, but my hesitation was that I assumed 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 talented with his casting. So I was intrigued.
Thuso, a South African actor, was an opportunity to give me the opportunity to be a good match for the role. She was doing things that nobody else was doing, subtle things. I could see her mind working in her actions, but not in the way an actor works. Everything felt real in the moment.
Viola Davis had a very clear idea of her role Nanisca, and the emotional and physical journey The Woman King should take her on. What happened when you started discussing the material together?
Viola kept a notebook of backstory. And while it should be for the actor, she shared some with me, and I shared with the other actors their backstories. I like to have that knowledge for myself and infuse it into the script.
Viola brought something that was not in the script, and it was such an obvious thing two days before we were getting set to shoot, we were in rehearsal, and she said, Why are we concealing the fact that Im 56 years old? Im 56. In the script we were implying that she was older, and why not? She is at a point in her life where you question everything, like fighting a battle. Of course she would ache after battle.
What steps are you able to employ to excite actors who otherwise would not be able to perform action work to exert such an incredible amount of force on the camera?
It was an incredible training. It started with me telling Viola and all the other actors that you'll be doing your own fighting and stunts. It's just better action.
Did you catch that on The Old Guard?
Yes. My template for The Old Guard was the bathroom match in M:I6, one of the greatest fights ever. So knowing what it takes to have longer takes, to know that the person doing the fighting is really the actor, to get the performance in every moment really taught me a lot.
This was different because [only] Lashana had ever done this before. So how do I get a group of women who had never done anything on this level near a 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, he inspires them.
We discussed how we couldnt fit them in our box. The training began months before, six days a week, two times a day. It was also part of the rehearsal process, to build up character. Doing that to your mind and body changes how you walk, changes how you think about yourself. They became athletes. They became warriors. And it completely bonded them, because they were going through this hell together.
Did you find the cultural significance of the Dahomey helpful in rethinking your actions, compared to the more contemporary setting of The Old Guard?
Braveheart was a model, but Slumdog Millionaire was also a model. I remember seeing it, and the cultural specificity took me into a world I hadn't realized until I saw it. That gave me confidence, because I wanted the general public to feel the same about this story and these women.
The weapons used by the women were first and foremost paintings. I visited the Fowler Museum [at UCLA] prior to the shooting, and the archives have items from the actual kingdom of Dahomey. And in those days, it was all hand-to-hand combat, unless you had the spear. [So we included] the fact that they would soak their nails in brine to harden them, that was a weapon. Palm oil on the skin so their opponents could grab hold of them.
And then there's the trauma the Agojie endured to train. How did you record the obstacle-course training sequence where the women tear 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.
It was difficult for me to figure out how to shoot that, because I knew you had to believe it as an audience. And I couldnt send my actors through it, despite some might have wanted to. But everything on the outside, right in front of the camera, was real, and inside were manufactured brambles. They used 3D to create them, and it entrains the audience.
The Woman King plays a candid portrayal of African slavery. Were there any difficulties in coordinating the Hollywood glamour with that blunt portrayal?
I knew that we needed to disclose this. Almost every society was involved in slavery in some sense, and the difference here was that prior to Europeans arriving, as in any other type of society, it was about prisoners of war, not commerce, as Europeans brought to it. However, we also set this film specifically at a time when Ghezo was deciding whether or not to capture other Africans and sell them to European slaves.
Because in America, half the kingdom wanted to keep it because it boosted their wealth. And Ghezo had to make that decision. Were not taught that we came from so far beyond that. It can certainly be a game-changer.
The film opens with Izogie braiding Nawis' hair, as the two have a heart-to-heart connection about being Agojie. Was the framing intentional, or does it reflect a deeper concern for Black women in your work?
I was literally until you said that did not connect those two women! Because I believed that wearing a bracelet was more engaging to Lashana. She said she's always wanted to do a scene like that in real life. But I've always wanted to be the best. I'm fascinated by women's desires.
In the last ten years, you have had an important conversation in the cinematography space about proper, artistic lighting for Black skin, especially dark skin. It's been so neglected over the last century. Was this a conversation you discussed with your DP, Polly Morgan?
This was a huge issue. Polly told me that we must light our women more effectively than they have ever seen before. Because there was a history of Black actors being lit horribly before we shot this film. It was so offending to me. I told Polly, This can never happen in this film. It's idiotic. And so on.
Had you considered directing 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 hadn't caught up to me yet. The doors had been closed for a long time, certainly in the action space for women. And it wasn't until Wonder Woman and the success Patty [Jenkins] had with that first one that absolutely opened the door. [Pitching those kinds of films earlier in my career] wasn't even an option.
Before I did the Marvel Cloak and Dagger pilot [in 2017], I decided to think about how to proceed in this industry. I would have gone in with my proposal, but I knew how to fix it. Because it was Marvel that lead me to [Sony and Marvels Silver Sable and Black]. And I knew how to fix it. But there was a reticence as we continue to pursue projects like this.
It's a big deal to walk away from something like that. And there's a part of me that was like, You won't walk away from something like that. And then I saw Patty's statement at an event, and we just talked about when she walked away from an opportunity [to direct Thor: The Dark World]. And right around the corner, Wonder Woman. So it was about having the courage to walk away if youre not seeing that you can do your best work in an environment.
Youve evolved into a somewhat novice filmmaker who cannot be defined by one form of film, which is becoming less and less common today. So this question is even more exciting: What do you anticipate for the future? What do you anticipate as the next obstacle?
It's been four years since The Old Guard merged with The Woman King. However, I have two projects, and I have to choose between the two. There's one really massive one, I'll just say it's in space.
We love living in space.
My intention is to put us in every genre. Disrupt genre. Its an incredible story based on an incredible short story. And the other is, after these two big films, Ive been wanting to write a more personal story returning to the beginning.
The Woman King is often referred to as the kind of film studios that rarely gamble on. Did it make you smile? Is it the movie everyone wanted to see?
The pressure I felt on this one was immense, because the actors trusted the vision implicitly and trusted me, so I could not disappoint them. And doing something that hasnt been done before is exciting. But it's also frightening. People understand and enjoy the film, and they understand the significance of it.