The latest film from director Gina Prince-Bythewood, “The Woman King” premiered Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival to a glowing reception. With Viola Davis starring as General Nanisca, commander of the Agoije, an all-woman army that defends the Kingdom of Dahomey, the film depicts an ongoing war with the Oyo Empire and the leadership of Dahomey’s newest ruler, King Ghezo (John Boyega).
Davis and Boyega, alongside cast mates Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim, sat down at TheWrap and Shutterstock’s Interview and Portrait Studio at the Toronto Film Festival for a conversation moderated by TheWrap’s editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman.
The journey to “The Woman King” began back in 2015, when actress Maria Bello — who serves as a producer on the film — was presenting an award to Davis and, in the process, pitched her on the story. “It was her introduction of me [to the audience] and she ended it with, ‘Wouldn’t you want to see Viola as “The Woman King”?’” Davis said. “And everybody just cheered. That’s where it started. And then from there, it was the fight [to get the film made].”
She added, “I wish people could be a fly on the wall so they can understand the process of getting a film made. It’s a lot of walking out of rooms just cussing, just putting my hands up going, ‘Oh my God, can you believe that happened? Can you believe we have to fight for this?’ And fighting for everything. Fighting for actors, fighting for the director, fighting for the integrity of the project.”
Davis described the headache of working with studios to find a director from lists of approved filmmakers that included the Christopher Nolans and David Finchers and Steven Spielbergs of the world, who are busy with other things. “And then fighting for other female directors who are names, who are busy doing other things, too, and fighting for the directors who are names that are too frightened of it, people who never even read the script.”
While she didn’t go into detail about why some directors might have shied away from the material, Davis did note that, “[Black women] are a mystery to a lot of people.”
Part of the allure for the rest of the cast of “The Woman King” was the opportunity to lose themselves within the film’s world, whether through performing the stunts themselves or within the narrative that echoed their own histories. “We were doing everything ourselves. It was hard, extremely hard. But beautiful,” Mbedu said. “It broke us in the way that it needed to, but also built us up.”
“When Gina’s letter and [Viola’s] email came through, it had the vibe of a call to action,” Boyega said of his initial interest in joining the film. “It wasn’t necessarily just about a career move or getting a few steps forward in the industry, it was more about, ‘Come and heal. Come and support. Come and be on set with other artists.’ For me, it was like a reintroduction to why I fell in love with acting.”
For Lynch, the film felt like a big leap. “For someone like me, who looks like me, to read a script and just be happy that it’s made and be happy that studios are getting behind it,” she said, “putting together the most powerful cast to be their most dedicated selves and supported by a director who really cares about them and cares about their wellbeing in tackling such deep narratives — as a Black woman, I felt like I was able to, like John said, heal a bit of myself, and backwards heal, from my ancestors onwards. It was a really special spiritual experience for me.”
As someone always looking for a new challenge with each role she chooses, Atim found plenty of such opportunities on “The Woman King.” “I think it was new for lots of people, working with that many Black women at the same time,” Atim said. “I’ve never, ever had the opportunity to do that. Both in front of and behind the camera, and working with that many Black people full stop.”
For the full conversation about “The Woman King,” click on the video above.
Studio sponsors include GreenSlate, Moët & Chandon, PEX and Vancouver Film School.