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Viola Davis and Gina Prince-Bythewood on the Battle to Get ‘The Woman King’ Made

For the film’s star and director, the historical epic of West African female fighters represents Black women in a new light: "The part of the movie that we love is also the part of the movie that is terrifying to Hollywood."

The first time Gina Prince-Bythewood and Viola Davis met about The Woman King, in the offices of Davis’ production company in the spring of 2020, the filmmaker broke one of the rules of her trade. “As I started talking about my connection to the material, I lost it,” Prince-Bythewood says. “There’s no crying in directing. But I cried there. And I left going, ‘Fuck, did I just blow it? Is V going to think I’m weak?’ “

It’s hard to imagine Prince-Bythewood giving anyone an impression of weakness. The director, a former basketball and track star whose filmography ranges from the 2000 romantic drama Love & Basketball to the 2020 Netflix superhero movie The Old Guard, is tall and lean, and projects a quiet confidence. As she tells this story during an interview in mid-August, she’s wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m Gonna Win,” chosen specifically for a meeting she’s having at Sony later that day; she anticipated a conflict with the studio over a decision on The Woman King, which she’s racing to finish in time for its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9 and its release in theaters Sept. 16.

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Prince-Bythewood is adopted, and it was when she began to talk about that at the meeting with Davis that her usual assured persona evaporated. The Woman King script, written by Dana Stevens and based on a story by Maria Bello and Stevens, is a historical epic about the Agojie, an all-female army in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it includes a storyline about an adopted girl. That moment of tearful revelation, which the filmmaker feared might cost her the chance to direct a unique studio movie centered on Black female power, instead clinched the deal. “I thought I was looking at a warrior,” Davis says. “Vulnerability is strength.”

The Woman King is the product of a thousand battles Davis, 57, and Prince-Bythewood, 53, have waged over the course of their careers, on subjects ranging from budgets to hairstyles. Despite being the only African American actor to achieve the triple crown of acting — an Oscar (for Fences), an Emmy (for How to Get Away With Murder) and not one but two Tonys (Fences and King Hedley II) — Davis had not had the opportunity to play a physical, heroic role like this one. The Woman King is a $50 million action-adventure epic — think Braveheart with Davis in the Mel Gibson role — a movie that somehow felt both inevitable and impossible for her and Prince-Bythewood to get to the screen. Its cast includes South African actress Thuso Mbedu, English actress Lashana Lynch and Ugandan British actress Sheila Atim as warriors in the army, and English actor John Boyega as the Dahomey king.

“The part of the movie that we love is also the part of the movie that is terrifying to Hollywood, which is, it’s different, it’s new,” Davis says. “We don’t always want different or new, unless you have a big star attached, a big male star. We didn’t have that going on for The Woman King. [Hollywood studios] like it when women are pretty and blond or close to pretty and blond. All of these women are dark. And they’re beating the shit out of men. So there you go.”

The process of making The Woman King coincided with and contributed to an era of personal reinvention for the actress. “I’m in a period of redefining myself for myself,” Davis says. “My Blackness, my womanhood, my nose, my lips. I reject everything anyone ever said about me. And I didn’t know that I had the power to do that.”

Viola Davis Photographed by Phylicia J.L. Munn

Davis, who both stars as the army’s general, Nanisca, and produces, was familiar with the Dahomey Amazons, as the Agojie are known, but was pulled into the movie via an unconventional pitch. In 2015, Bello traveled to the West African nation of Benin, formerly the Dahomey kingdom, and learned the story of the Agojie there. Bello came home to L.A. convinced there was a film in that history, and enlisted producer Cathy Schulman, then head of the organization Women in Film, to help her realize it. “We wondered if it was possible to make an all-Black female action movie, which is really what we wanted to do,” Schulman says. This was before Marvel’s Black Panther, which fictionalizes the Agojie as the female warriors of the Dora Milaje, broke box office barriers in 2018, and before the Black Lives Matter movement sparked a new urgency in Hollywood’s sometimes halting efforts at inclusion. In 2015, Bello used a moment when she was presenting Davis with an award at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles to tell the audience the story of the Agojie general and suggest that she’d like to see Davis play the role. “Instead of just presenting the award the way you normally would, she pitched the script, just this whole story,” Davis says. “And then when she finished it, everybody started cheering.” Davis was in.

Schulman, who had produced best picture winner Crash in 2004, first tried to get The Woman King set up at STX, where she was the head of production. “Everybody looked at me like I was insane to even think this could be a commercial movie,” Schulman says. “I remember them saying, ‘You’d need a lot of money to do that, with the battles, but it’s the kind of movie you should make for $5 million.’ ” Schulman left STX in 2016 to return to producing, and she, Bello, Davis, and Davis’ husband and producing partner at JuVee Productions, Julius Tennon, pitched the film around town. Studios didn’t see the film as likely to earn enough to warrant the budget it required, or they wanted to cast light-skinned, well-known actresses, which felt historically inaccurate to the producers and likely to take the audience out of the movie, Davis says. “We talked to a lot of people and got rejected. We were trying to reason with them. What is it that is standing in the way of you saying yes and accepting this movie and giving us a proper budget?”

In the summer of 2017, at Sony’s TriStar label, Davis and her fellow producers met with the studio’s then-chief, Hannah Minghella, and Minghella’s then-senior vp, Nicole Brown. Within two years, Minghella would depart for a job at Bad Robot and Brown would ascend into the studio’s top role, making her the first Black woman to run a live-action label at a major film studio. When Brown became the head of the company, she made The Woman King one of TriStar’s top priorities, and the film secured a co-financier, eOne. At the time of that first meeting, the film didn’t have a script or a director, but, Brown says, “I could see the movie. I was so mesmerized by the thought that these women existed in the world and I hadn’t heard of it. It had all the makings of a huge theatrical story, epic emotions, and incredible thrills and hero moments. And it had landscapes that I just wanted to see. And it had never been told.”

In between that first meeting and the studio’s green light in 2020, Marvel released Black Panther, which would go on to gross $1.3 billion worldwide and be nominated for best picture, disproving one of the more pernicious pieces of Hollywood conventional wisdom, that movies with Black casts don’t travel. “When I heard that movie was happening, I got a little nervous,” Brown says of Black Panther. “Like, ‘Oh no, did we not move fast enough?’ And then when I saw it, it only emboldened me more to make sure we made this movie. There’s absolutely room for both stories. That’s a comic book, fantasy experience, and this is inspired by real life. This is real people and a real part of our history.” At one point, Lupita Nyong’o was attached to The Woman King, in a version of the role ultimately played by Mbedu, which Brown says evolved to be younger in rewrites — Nyong’o would go on to play a key role in Black Panther as a former Dora Milaje member. Now The Woman King will land in theaters just two months before the anticipated Black Panther sequel, Wakanda Forever, arrives, and the films have a relationship that Prince-Bythewood considers complementary. “I love the fact that we are in a time when we both exist, it’s a beautiful thing,” she says. “Their success absolutely had a hand in us finally getting a green light. They changed culture.”

Since it is derived from real history, the Woman King story is more complex than a simple hero’s tale — and the accuracy of the film has been a subject of speculation even before its first public screening. In mid-August, The 1619 Project author Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted, “It will be interesting to see how a movie that seems to glorify the all-female military unit of the Dahomey deals with the fact that this kingdom derived its wealth from capturing Africans for the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” The film does tackle that subject — Davis’ Nanisca objects to her king’s practice of selling war prisoners into slavery, and advocates for a different policy. “When I came aboard, those were some of the first conversations,” Prince-Bythewood says, of the depiction of the slave trade. “But it was, ‘We’re going to tell the truth. We’re not going to shy away from anything.’ But also we’re telling a part of the story which is about overcoming and fighting for what’s right. And I think we got it right.”

Prince-Bythewood joined the film in 2020 on the heels of directing The Old Guard, an action movie starring Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne that was bigger in both budget ($70 million) and audience than any she had made before. According to Netflix, 72 million homes streamed The Old Guard during its first four weeks on the platform, placing the film sixth among Netflix’s 10 most popular movies up until that point, ahead of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (64 million) and the Ben Affleck action movie Triple Frontier (63 million). “I have always wanted to be in the big sandbox,” Prince-Bythewood says of making larger films. “Once you’re in there, you tend to stay there in this industry.”

Gina Prince-Bythewood Photographed by Phylicia J.L. Munn

Years before their meeting on The Woman King, Davis and Prince-Bythewood had met at a dinner for the director’s 2008 drama The Secret Life of Bees, an evening that did not lead to an immediate connection. “Everyone thinks I’m hostile, which sometimes I convey,” Davis says. “But with Gina, I told Julius, I was like, ‘That director from Love & Basketball, she don’t like me. I’m talking to her. She’s not saying nothing.’ ” Prince-Bythewood says she was awed by Davis that night, and felt shy. When they met again for The Woman King, however, Davis felt a spark. “Finding a director was a slog,” Davis says. “There are a lot of directors out there that the studio approves, but they have a lot of things going on. They don’t need to direct The Woman King. Or [there are] people who would be interested in it but are too afraid of it. And then in walks Gina. It’s like when I met my husband, adopted my daughter — there are just perfect moments in life.”

In her meetings with the studio, Prince-Bythewood referenced epic films like Braveheart, Gladiator and The Last of the Mohicans and talked about her love of athleticism. Her background in sports, including boxing, was among the key qualities she brought to the job, giving her a perspective on the realism of fight scenes, both technically and emotionally. “What was normal to me growing up was women who went after it, who were aggressive, who had that mentality of wanting to be the best,” Prince-Bythewood says. “To outwork everybody, to leave everything out on the floor. Those lessons were normal to me. And then, as I got older, it was fascinating when I started to learn how few women had that. I truly believe that everyone has this innate athlete, innate warrior within them. I’ve been in a ring, I’ve gotten hit in the face, I’ve hit back. To be able to bring those kinds of nuances to scenes — what does that feel like before you’re about to fight? How you stand, how you think? Just knowing those types of things, I think, was very helpful.”

The actresses’ physical preparation was punishing, and Prince-Bythewood joined them for much of it. For four months before the shoot, the cast performed 90 minutes a day of weight lifting with trainer Gabriela Mclain, followed by three and a half hours of fight training with stunt coordinator Danny Hernandez, which included running, martial arts, and working with swords and spears. Davis used pro boxer Claressa Shields as a prototype of focus, stance and strength. At one point, the actress was running a six-minute, 23-second mile on the treadmill during workouts. For Davis, the transformation was far more than cosmetic — it was a way of reawakening qualities she’d had as a child. “I was a tough kid, I always wanted to kick somebody’s ass,” Davis says. “But as I grew into an adult, I embraced the narrative of the world about women. Which is, I’m feeling guilty that I don’t smile enough, I’m not soft enough, I’m not small enough, I’m too aggressive, everybody’s afraid of me. All these adjectives that I’ve been running from all my life that I feel de-feminize me. All of a sudden I had to call in all of those things that I threw into a wastebasket to create this Nanisca. And somewhere in the middle of that, it just happened: I felt badass. I felt proud, even, of my body, and not that it looked like anything that anybody else would find acceptable, but for me, it just was the house of my bravery.”

Viola Davis and Gina Prince-Bythewood Photographed by Phylicia J.L. Munn

In assembling a crew for the five-month, South Africa-based shoot, Prince-Bythewood prioritized department heads who were women and people of color, including cinematographer Polly Morgan, production designer Akin McKenzie, costume designer Gersha Phillips, visual effects supervisor Sara Bennett and editor Terilyn Shropshire. For makeup, she hired a local, South African artist, Babalwa Mtshiselwa. “The thing is for women and people of color, often the résumés are not long because it’s about lack of opportunity, not lack of talent,” Prince-Bythewood says. “So when you’re in my position, it’s important to look past that résumé. There were a couple of people who’ve never done a film of this size before, but what they brought into that meeting, I knew that they were going to bring something extra.” Hair was going to be important on the film, and Prince-Bythewood wanted her actresses, many of whom had had the experience of being on sets where stylists don’t know how to do their hair, to have a say. The director asked hairstylist Louisa Anthony for looks that were cool and functional in fight scenes, braids and short styles that her cast could move in. Prince-Bythewood’s mandate to DP Morgan was, she says, “I want our women to look more beautiful than they’ve ever been shot before.”

The director also had strong ideas about how certain character scenes ought to be shot — for a sequence in which a character is remembering a sexual assault, the director asked the actress to read the Roxane Gay book Hunger, a memoir about Gay’s rape. In thinking about how to shoot the scene, she referenced Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination hearing. “Where does my lens go?” Prince-Bythewood says. “It’s shot from her perspective. What would she remember hearing, seeing, smelling and feeling?”

Davis (left) and Prince-Bythewood on the South Africa set of The Woman King. Courtesy of TriStar Pictures/SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC.

In November 2021, three weeks into the film shooting on a game reserve in the coastal South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, the COVID-19 omicron variant, which South African scientists were the first to identify, hit the production. One person tested positive on a Saturday and by Tuesday it was 21 people; Davis and her husband were among those who eventually got sick. The studio intervened. “I was like, ‘I can’t let you guys keep shooting,’ ” Brown says. “The patterns of COVID were different this time. We realized that we needed to take a break and understand what we were dealing with.” The day after production shut down, an elaborate set of a palace was finally completed and Prince-Bythewood and her DP went to look at it. “I just sat in this incredible, enormous set thinking, ‘Are we even ever going to come back here?’ ” the director says. “Is the studio going to say, ‘This movie, it’s not worth it’?” Prince-Bythewood and the cast stayed in South Africa through Christmas, waiting for permission to restart the production. When shooting resumed in mid-January, new, stricter COVID protocols were in place. Outdoor scenes with 300 to 400 background actors were limited to no more than 150. The actresses playing the Agojie were quarantined in a hotel, as were the stunt performers who were going to be face-to-face with them. Prince-Bythewood says the Woman King shoot was the hardest of her career, mostly because she wanted more shooting days than she got. What she had budgeted as an 11-day battle sequence with hundreds of performers had to be reshuffled and re-rehearsed when the pandemic interrupted it. “There was incredible pressure I was putting on myself,” the director says. “I could not fail these other actors who trusted me to get this right. That kind of pressure drives me and keeps me, hopefully, outworking everybody.”

A scene with Nanisca (Viola Davis) involving the Agojie, an all-female army in the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Courtesy of TriStar Pictures/SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC.

For Davis, there was no question that she would stay on the movie. It was the culmination of so much she had worked toward. In the past couple of years, Davis has been opening up more publicly, and dismantling some of the Great Actress persona through which audiences came to know her. One way she’s done that is through her social media accounts, which are managed with the help of her production company’s director of digital media, Anton Smith. In addition to promoting her projects to her 9.7 million Instagram followers, she shares videos of cute families, often Black ones, resources about mental health and feel-good moments like an 86-year-old woman roller-skating to the Bee Gees. “Everything in there is an extension of me, that’s my brand, me,” Davis says. “My big thing is the extent to which people lie. Everybody’s living the most fabulous life. You would think that every woman is juggling being a mom, being a producer, cooking three meals a day, learning new recipes, reading a book a day. And that person who is struggling through anything, what that does is they go more inward and they live in shame. I don’t want that.”

Viola Davis Photographed by Phylicia J.L. Munn

In April, Davis published her memoir, Finding Me, a multi-week No. 1 New York Times best-seller detailing the life of private hardship, including family violence, poverty and bullying, that preceded her Hollywood stardom. Davis says she’s always been the kind of person people share their stories with — strangers walk up to her in the parking lot at Target and divulge the most personal things. That has only increased since her memoir was published. “People get to know my story, so I’m not this sort of mythical figure anymore, which I didn’t necessarily enjoy,” Davis says. “People will say, ‘You had it so hard, your life was brutal. It made me feel so much better about mine.’ The people who have said it to me, some have been in jail, some have struggled with drug addiction, some of them have struggled with sexual assault. You have had it hard, that’s the whole point. That was the whole point of Finding Me, was not putting on the mask anymore, ripping that shit right the hell off and introducing myself to the world. And I want to give you permission to do the same.”

Davis accepting the Academy Award for best supporting actress in Fences in 2017. MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

Davis had the unusual (for her) experience of getting mixed to negative reviews for her last TV project, Showtime’s First Ladies, in which she played Michelle Obama. When a BBC News interviewer asked her about the negative reviews, Davis said, “Critics absolutely serve no purpose.” Asked in this interview about that comment and her relationship with critics, Davis confessed that even she sometimes deals with impostor syndrome, and critical reviews plug into that. “I have been loved. I’ve been hated,” Davis says. “That’s an occupational hazard. That’s part of the game. What is my relationship to critics? Fear. It’s either a crippling fear of, what I put out there can suck and people are going to find me out as the hack I am, or it’s just a regular fear. I’m sorry, I care. If someone insults me, I have a heart. It’s a beating heart in there, you can hurt me.”

Davis and The Woman King producer Maria Bello attend the fourth annual Women Making History Brunch, presented by the National Women’s History Museum and Glamour magazine. Todd Williamson/Getty Images

The projects Davis has taken in the year since she finished shooting The Woman King are less demanding. She’ll shoot for three and a half weeks on a prequel to The Hunger Games, a movie that appealed to her in part as the mother of a 12-year-old daughter and in part because she plays a villain. “I played a lot of characters that are warm and fuzzy, you sit on my lap and I’m the ultimate mama,” Davis says. “So, I’m enjoying this part of my career where I get to be messy. People always ask me, ‘What’s next, Viola?’ I’m like, ‘Anything. I want to do it all.’ ”

Prince-Bythewood, too, is at something of a crossroads. She made her mark with smaller movies from her own scripts, like Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees and Beyond the Lights, and after two large productions in a row, she is planning two projects: one small, personal dramedy she would write herself and one large, space-based sci-fi story with an ensemble cast. “Doing films of this scale and scope, the pressures are nonstop, the fights are nonstop,” she says. She has an aversion to sequels — she’s producing the Old Guard sequel, but not directing it; Victoria Mahoney has that job this time. About twice a year, Prince-Bythewood says, she is contacted by a company wanting to do a sequel or a TV series of Love & Basketball, which does not interest her. “I said everything I wanted to say,” she says.

Gina Prince-Bythewood Photographed by Phylicia J.L. Munn

Davis and Prince-Bythewood see the audience for The Woman King, which Sony will release in more than 3,000 theaters, including on Imax screens, as “absolutely everyone,” Davis says. “Men, women, Black, white, Hispanic, everyone. Why wouldn’t it be?” As they reach for a broad audience, star and director know that they have satisfied themselves. “I’ve been in the business for over 33 years,” Davis says. “I worked hard to be at this place. Nothing was ever given to me. Work begets work, and then you get your The Woman King.

Gina Prince-Bythewood and Viola Davis on the cover of September 6, 2022, issue of The Outne Reporter magazine Photographed by Phylicia J.L. Munn

This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Outne Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.