Woman King: Making of Gina Prince-Bythewood and Viola Davis Epic

Viola Davis and Director Gina Prince-Bythewood on their Battle to Make ‘The Woman King’

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

It’s hard to imagine Gina 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 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.

Maria Bello

The Woman King script, written by Dana Stevens and based on a story by Maria Bello and Stevens, is an historical epic about the Agojie, an all-female army in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th centuries. It includes a storyline about an adopted girl, which the director related to as she too was adopted.

The Woman King is the product of battles that Davis, 57, and Prince-Bythewood, 53, have waged over the course of their careers, on subjects ranging from budgets to hairstyles.

Viola Davis: Triple Crown of Acting

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 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–sort of Braveheart with Davis in the Mel Gibson role–a movie that 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.

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.”

Making The Woman King coincided with 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 by 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 Women in Film, to help her realize it.

Schulman, who had produced best picture winner Crash in 2004, first tried to get The Woman King set up at STX, where she was 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, 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.”

In the summer of 2017, at Sony’s TriStar label, Davis and fellow producers met with the then-chief, Hannah Minghella, and Minghella’s then-senior vp, Nicole Brown. Within two years, Minghella would depart 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 head of the company, she made The Woman King one of TriStar’s top priorities. At the time, the film didn’t have a script or director, but, Brown was mesmerized by the thought that these women exist. “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.”

Prince-Bythewood joined the film in 2020 after directing The Old Guard, an actioner 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

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.”

The actresses’ physical preparation: for four months before the shoot, the cast performed 90 minutes a day of weightlifting with trainer Gabriela Mclain, followed by three and a half hours of flight 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.”

Davis (left) and Prince-Bythewood on the South Africa set of The Woman King. COURTESY OF TRISTAR PICTURES/SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC.
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.

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, detailing the life of private hardship, including family violence, poverty and bullying, that preceded her Hollywood stardom.

Davis accepting the Academy Award for best supporting actress in Fences in 2017. MARK RALSTON/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Davis got negative reviews for her last TV project, Showtime’s First Ladies, in which she played Michelle Obama. Davis later said, “Critics absolutely serve no purpose.” 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.’ ”

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 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 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.