The Woman King opened at no. 1 at the box office in September 2022 and everyone is still talking about it. Words by: Mwai Yeboah
A work of historical fiction, it follows the Agoji, an all-female warrior unit that defended the West African Kingdom of Dahomey from slave traders in the 1800s. In truth, the historical warriors who inspired the film were a 6,000-strong female unit of women rejected by society. The film takes creative licence in telling a compelling story of these unruly, undesirable women who went to battle on behalf of the king, taking captives and slicing off heads as trophies of war. In the 1800s, the Agoji were powerful and fierce and became known by Europeans as “Amazons.”
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Hollywood A-lister and Oscar winner Viola Davis, it’s a triumphant action film that includes black women in significant roles and a predominantly black cast. It spotlights the next generation of black women in Hollywood.
Davis said to Variety, “It’s an undeniable, powerful story. We know Black women. We know they’re going to bring people they work with, spouses and families, and come back five or six times during the weekend. We are in an industry that doesn’t see the power Black women [can] have at the global box office.” Davis told Variety that “The Woman King can connect to all audiences, not only Black women.” This rings true as viewers across the board connect over some of the film’s central themes of violence, liberation, and spirituality.
While the film was met with an enthusiastic response and a rare A+ from CinemaScore® (Hollywood’s benchmark), The Woman King still received some social media backlash with the hashtag #boycottwomanking. Critics slammed the film for failing to tell the whole story about Dahomey’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade as a violent society dedicated to capturing and selling people to European slavers.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood and Producer Julius Tennon defend the film, pointing out that it covers a point in history when the kingdom was at a crossroads. They encourage viewers to investigate further as only so much of the extensive history can be told in a film. The conversation around The Woman King is nuanced, with writers pointing out that the bulk of historical accounts of Dahomey is from external observers.
In one historical record from King Kpengla, who ruled Dahomey from 1774-1789, he speaks to abolitionist Europeans, saying their countrymen are grossly mistaken that Dahomey went to war to supply their slave ships. Astonished by the mischaracterisation, he states that they were a society in the middle of a continent surrounded by other people, and they were obliged to defend it against incursions and punish plundering. At the end of the day, The Woman King is a fictionalised story that compels us to dig deeper and explore the tension and nuances of history.
“Sometimes you’re in a project that’s bigger than you. You’re not thinking about the box office. You’re not thinking about success. You’re thinking about transcendence,” Viola Davis told Essence. The Woman King does feel bigger, and the conversation we’re already having is a bigger one. It’s a box-office must-see and one that already seems to be achieving the transcendence it deserves.
Read Fifty-Four’s interview with Nigerian-South African actress Chioma Antoinette Umeala who plays Tara in The Woman King:
What was it like to film in your home country of South Africa and to have the film actually take place in an African setting?
As much as we’re filming in South Africa, if we’re honest about some of South Africa’s relationships with the rest of the continent, it’s not always a completely harmonious picture. The truth is we’re telling another country’s story on our soil, so it’s important that we honour the women, so it’s true to the spirit of who they were.
I know it is stereotypical, but the sunsets were poetic. Sometimes, we’d be filming and look out, and there was that African sunset. We were filming in huge open velds (grasslands), hours away from the outside world and any sort of proper connection, so I felt so much peace and truly connected to our surroundings.
Training for this film couldn’t have been easy. Can you walk us through a day of training?
My pick-up was at 8am, so I would wake up between 6-7am. Because we filmed during Covid, every second day was testing. We had strength and conditioning for an hour at the beginning of the day. We would then travel to stunt training for three hours a day, then we’d break for lunch, and the next two hours would be choreography and dance rehearsals because there are quite a few dances in the film. We also ate according to a meal plan and were very healthy.
You play Tara in the film; will you talk us through how you got into character?
I had a lot of conversations with Gina about my character. One of the main things she said was that she is just a guide for our characters and would like to hear how we perceive them. I typed up a whole page describing what Tara’s wants are and why she decided to join the army in the first place. I had a couple of discussions around it, and she was quite happy with the direction, so I used that manual as a touch point for myself. Accent-wise, because the Agoji didn’t speak English or have an English accent, we settled on another West African accent, which was the Nigerian accent. I just thought of my Nigerian aunties and cousins so I would get into that energy.
What was it like to film the story of the Agoji women?
I would look at my close stars, and we’re all pumped up and everything, and I’m like, this is crazy. I cried so many times just looking at the sight of us.
Do you have any fun memories from shooting that stand out?
I grew very close with another actress – Masali Baduza. We shared a makeup artist, Giovanna, and she became one of our best friends. It’s all love, all friendship. When we’d wrap at the same time, it was like, “Who’s going to get to Giovanna’s chair first?” We would enter our cars and race towards the base camp to get our makeup off. We’d have scars and cuts made with latex that had to be removed, so we were very competitive to get into the chair first. We’d sometimes try to sabotage each other. I’d put her bag in a corner so she’d have to hunt for it before leaving, and it just became this running joke.
Did the international cast and crew try local South African dishes they hadn’t eaten before?
Yes, malva pudding! I’m not a dessert person, but anyone knows I love malva pudding. It was so great seeing everyone’s faces when they took their first bite because they were like, wow! All of them thought it was amazing.
What was the best and most challenging part of filming?
The best part was making my friends. I mean it quite genuinely that they became my sisters. Another highlight was Viola’s speech in one of the scenes that riled us up to go into battle. Just watching Viola and watching her work brought tears to my eyes. To be able to witness her grace and talent was truly something. She never postured but was incredibly humble, which was a treat to see.
The hardest was the training and being away from home. We had to film one battle dance back-to-back 12 times in a row. It was so hard. It felt like sprinting a marathon, but it was a huge relief in the end. Everyone killed it, and we all kind of cried watching that scene on screen.
What was one of your favourite scenes to shoot?
I would say it was the victory dance. The Agoji women would dance after a battle, so towards the end of the film, we have this celebratory dance that’s symbolic of our liberation. We had been learning this dance for months, so it was great to perform it finally, but it was like this big celebration with my sisters. It almost put a full stop at the end of the journey for us. It was really beautiful.