For the last decade, filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood has been working towards one career goal: "I want our Braveheart," she says of Mel Gibson's 1995 historical war epic, in which he also stars as the 13th century Scottish warrior, William Wallace. The film received 10 Oscar nominations and ultimately won five, including Best Picture and Best Director. "I love that movie," Prince-Bythewood says, "and I've never seen myself reflected in a film like that."
The opportunity finally came in The Woman King, which is both a sword-and-sandals epic like Braveheart before it, and Spartacus and Ben-Hur before that, and also revolutionary in its narrative: Set in the 1820s in the West African kingdom of Dahomey, the movie centers on the all-female Agojie warriors, led on-screen by Viola Davis' General Nanisca, who is the Kpojito — or the titular Woman King.
Though the story told is fictionalized (by screenwriter Dana Stevens), the Agojie were very real, born of the only kingdom in all of Africa where women were given an equal voice: For every man in a role of power — like John Boyega's King Ghezo — there was a woman with equal power. "Knowing that was really special to me," says Prince-Bythewood. "We're not just putting these badass women on-screen, but we're telling a bigger story of who these women were, what the society was like, and what we hope every society could be."
In the film, the Agojie warriors (played by the likes of Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim and Thuso Mbedu) are called upon when Dahomey is threatened by the neighboring Oyo Empire, with the future of their people waged on the battlefield. Or, as William Wallace so famously put it, They may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!
"Through all the prep, and all the push to get our greenlight, and the fights, and the fights, and the fights, the thing that stayed in my head was getting to that first day on set when you get to look around and see yourself in all these faces in front of the camera and behind, and then, say, 'Action,'" Prince-Bythewood reflects. "That was my north star, and it was a beautiful moment when that happened."
Ahead of The Woman King's premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival (it opens in theaters everywhere on Sept. 16), the filmmaker spoke with A.frame about what it took to bring her epic to life.
A.frame: Your last feature was 2020's The Old Guard, on which you became the first Black woman to direct a major comic book movie. Was there something you learned making that movie that proved invaluable as you set out on this?
Everything I've done up until this point prepared me to do The Woman King, which is absolutely the biggest film I've done. What I learned on Silver & Black — even though it didn't end up going, but was my first foray into something that big and set pieces that big — prepared me for The Old Guard, in that it didn't feel like this huge leap. Then, doing The Old Guard and all that I learned in terms of what you need to do to prepare for stunts, how much you need to prepare the actors, how to work with your stunt and fight coordinator, prepared me for The Woman King. It also gave me the knowledge of knowing what it takes to do really good action — how many takes it can be, that it has to be perfect on set or it will not be in your edit room. Even if you're on take 22 and it's not quite right, you can't stop. You're exhausted. The actors are exhausted. But you learn that, if it's not on set, it's not in the edit room, and you don't have the scene.
From a directing perspective, was there one sequence that was sort of most daunting? That you had circled in red on your calendar because you knew it was going to be a challenge?
The Oyo battle, absolutely. Our DP, Polly Morgan, and I studied Braveheart. We studied Gladiator. We studied Last of the Mohicans. We looked at battles in other films that I won't mention, where it didn't work. It just felt like random fighting. I used the phrase 'intimately epic' with every department head, and certainly when I spoke with Danny Hernandez, who's our fight and stunt coordinator. The best action is story-driven and character-driven, and the best way to do that is to have performance within it. And it's one thing to say to your actors, 'You guys are going to be doing your own fighting and your own stunts.' It's another to have actors embrace that fully, and these actors embraced it fully. They all had the desire to be great. Every single one of them wanted to do everything and kept doing it until they got it perfectly.
That battle was absolutely this thing that was looming at the end of the schedule, but I put it there to give the actors enough time to train for those sequences. But also, I needed our crew to be at a place where we were all so comfortable with each other working at that level before we got into that, because it was daunting, and we had 11 days to shoot it. In context, the plane fight in The Old Guard, I shot over five days and that was two people in a tube. This was an epic battle! But we had a plan. We stuck to that plan, and we got it done.
When you were on set shooting those battle sequences, how do you make sure that you're maintaining that intimacy and not getting lost in the epic scope and epic scale of it?
It's breaking it down into pieces, essentially. Giving each vignette a beginning, middle, and end, and making it bite size so that it didn't feel overwhelming. Because it's a lot. It's hundreds of people coming together with machetes and swords and guns. And it's not just random violence or random fighting, because sometimes you can make that look cool, but then it becomes monotonous if you don't care about the characters. It's talking to the actors about, 'What are you doing in this scene? You're not just fighting. What are you doing?'
The first sequence we shot for the Oyo battle was a fight for a character named Fumbe [Masali Baduza], who is a young woman who joins the Agojie because her family was slaughtered and she had nowhere to go. She says at the beginning, 'I'm not a soldier,' and now she has an incredible arc in the Oyo battle. Also, the look of the Oyo battle, there's a lot of smoke and fire, so I didn't know until we shot that what it was going to feel like. Once we shot that first one, it was like, 'All this preparation, all these things that we thought this could be, how it could feel, look like viscerally, it's working,' and that made everybody more inspired. It's like, 'Let's go get the next one.'
You've said that this film has the ability to 'reshape what it means to be female.' Can you elaborate on that sentiment and what consideration went into that reshaping?
Even in this day and age, people do not think of women as warriors, as fighters, as having heart and courage. These women in the 1800s absolutely had that. They were the main fighting force of this kingdom, and they wanted to be there. They wanted to be fighters. There was a beauty in their power, in how they trained, and they were praised for it. But you still see how people come down on Serena [Williams], who is absolutely the greatest of all time — what she's had to go through as an athlete and female athlete. The more we can put women up on-screen to show that we have an innate warrior, to celebrate their fitness, and their athleticism, and their skill, to show that we are capable. Again, these are not stunt doubles doing that fighting. These actors, these women, did that. Viola Davis did that. Thuso Mbedu did that. We can do that. These are not superheroes. These were real women, and the women up on-screen are real women.
Describe the energy on set for me, being surrounded not just by women but Black women, on this massive movie shooting in South Africa.
It was the hardest shoot I've ever done and the most beautiful shoot I've ever done. People didn't leave set. The actors wanted to be there to see other people's work. You wanted to be part of this collective and this sisterhood that, legit, was real. The crew would applaud after Viola did a sequence, or after we did the battle dance. I didn't realize how big dance was to this culture. Not only did these women train to fight 24/7, they also created these elaborate choreographed dances that celebrated themselves and got them ready for war. The actors, on top of having to learn to fight, and do stunts, and learn dialect, had to learn these elaborate dances as well. But they all stepped up.
People were erupting in applause, because they are so enamored by what they got to witness. It was phenomenal. And, certainly, for me to work with Viola Davis, to be feet away from greatness, was a gift every day. I know the actors felt that too, when you got to be in a scene with Viola. If you weren't in the scene, you were standing there watching Viola do a scene. It was really spectacular, and I think the thing I'm most proud of is creating a space for these women — many of them for the first time — to be able to be their true, authentic selves without apology. To be loud, be who you are, and be celebrated.
I'm hoping it wasn't a casualty of the COVID era, because that must have been one hell of a wrap party.
It was a casualty of the COVID era, so we had our parties on set, absolutely.
You've spent the last decade trying to bring your own Braveheart to the screen. What does it mean to you to finally have it coming out?
I still feel like it's a miracle that this film got made and that it's about to be out into the world. The reaction that's been trickling in from the few people who have seen it has been incredibly inspiring, but there's always anxiety. Now, it's like, 'Are people going to come? What are they going to say? Are they going to come back? Are they going to tell other people?' I hope that they sit in a theater and feel what I feel when I watch the film, and I've seen it at least a hundred times. The performances in this film are extraordinary, and I'm so proud of these women.
Are your boys among the early people who have seen The Woman King?
They're going to see it for the first time at TIFF. Usually, my husband is always the first one who sees it, and then, my boys. But because one's in college and one was away playing baseball, they haven't seen it yet. I was more scared to show them The Old Guard than anybody, because they're going to be honest, and they love action. I didn't want them to say, 'Mom, your action sucks,' or, 'Your action is corny.' That was an incredible screening, to sit those two down in a theater by themselves to watch this film and to see their smiles when they came out of it. They gave me a hug and said, 'Yeah, that was good, Mom.'
By John Boone