DUBAI: In the 26 years since she debuted on the screen, 57-year-old American actress Viola Davis has become the only Black American to win the Triple Crown of acting — an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony, had her star included on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and has even been named by the New York Times as one of the top 10 actors of the century. Never, though, has she been prouder of a film than she is of “The Woman King.”
“For the first time in my career, I had agency — agency to be able to control the narrative for myself, to have a character that reflected me,” Davis tells Arab News. “It’s a story in which I don’t have to make my blackness disappear in order to make the role work. It meant freedom — that’s what it’s meant.”
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball,” “The Secret Life of Bees”), “The Woman King” is the sort of film that many have called for for decades — a historical epic in the style of “Braveheart” or “Gladiator” that centers on the story of African leaders. It is set in the real-life West African kingdom of Dahomey in 1823 and focuses on General Nanisca (Davis), the woman who would become Dahomey’s ‘king.’
For Bythewood, it’s the film she had been dreaming of making all her career. “‘Braveheart’ is one of my favorite movies, and I’ve always wanted to make our ‘Braveheart.’ So when the script came, I thought this might be the chance to do it,” says Bythewood.
Getting it made, however, was anything but easy. Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon, fought for seven years, with Bythewood coming in during the last year to help assemble a cast that was worthy of such an ambitious project.
“To get from that desire to a green light is a lot. It’s a lot of fight. It’s a lot of moving parts. It’s a lot of casting. But I feel like it just happened at the right time. And certainly, I feel like all my work up until this point got me to a position to be able to do this story and tell it the right way,” Bythewood says.
The team assembled an all-star cast of up-and-coming talent, including Lashana Lynch (“Doctor Strange 2,” “No Time to Die”), John Boyega (the “Star Wars” sequel trilogy), and Thuso Mbedu (“The Underground Railroad”), each of whom took on different historical figures that showed the complicated nature of 19th-century Africa, in which prominent West African kingdoms worked with European slavers to sell those they defeated in battle, a practice they later rejected.
“I really had to learn about this history, and once I did I had a responsibility in portraying this man to not shy away from his conflicts, especially the conflicts that are quite negative,” Boyega says. “I had to be open to the reality of the wrong, for the sake of good portrayal.”
At the center of it all is Davis herself, giving perhaps the best performance of her career.
“This movie wouldn’t have gotten made without Viola. No one else can be Nanisca, and she’s everything she is off the screen as she is on the screen. She’s so powerful,” says Bythewood.
“She wants collaboration, and we had a great time building this character. She wasn’t familiar with fighting and stunts because she hadn’t done it before, but I have, so I brought my athlete mentality to her and let her know what it really feels like to be in a ring, to hit or be hit, to swing a weapon. Once we had that, we could really build her from there, and once we had Viola’s performance, we had our key ingredient,” Bythewood continues.
For Lynch, this was not just about telling the story of an African kingdom — it was the story of a Black woman-led society, one that has never been explored on screen before, and she and the crew felt a huge responsibility to do it correctly.
“For these women, this is the first time that we’re telling their story. We have to do right by them. These are our ancestors. These women are the reason why we are here on this earth,” says Lynch.