Director Gina Prince-Bythewood may be from California, but both her identity and her latest film are firmly rooted in the African continent.
The Woman King is set in 19th Century Benin and follows General Nanisca (Viola Davis), leader of an elite all-female unit of warriors – the Agojie – who protect the Kingdom of Dahomey. In telling a story that so distinctly belongs to an African group of women, Prince-Bythewood immediately knew the production had to travel across the Atlantic.
"I didn’t want this to be a green screen film," she tells Total Film. "But it wasn’t just for the aesthetics – we wanted our feet and hands in the soil to tell the stories. This is an epic film with big crowds, and I wanted it to be us."
Much of the African diaspora, even generations after their ancestors left its shores, still feel pulled back to the continent, and that was certainly the case for Viola Davis. "I first went to Africa when I was 25, a student at Juilliard," she explains. "[I went to] the Gambia because I was trying to find myself, to redefine myself. Not as an artist, but as a Black woman. It was almost like I was screaming inside: 'I know I’m more than what you’re telling me I am!'"
Davis has now traveled extensively across Africa, including to South Africa to make The Woman King, and each time feels that same release. "Every single day it was as if I had meditated for five hours. I had absolutely no anxiety. I had no problem sleeping. It’s the feeling of just being."
Prince-Bythewood’s first footsteps on the continent were no less impactful. "My honeymoon was to Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and we often spoke about how we wished that every African-American could take that journey," she says. "It’s profound to not be a minority for the first time."
The Woman King arrives in US cinemas on September 16, and opens in the UK on October 4. For more on the movie, check out the new issue of Total Film magazine, which is on sale from Thursday, August 18.
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