"This is a film and a story that we haven't seen before," Gina Prince-Bythewood tells Total Film. "And it was a fight – a real fight – to tell this story."
We’re talking The Woman King, The Old Guard director’s new movie about an all-female elite group of warriors, the Agojie, who protected the Kingdom of Dahomey at the height of the slave trade in the 1800s. It’s a fascinating story based on true events – and yet, Hollywood’s various studios were initially reluctant to make an epic cenering on a Black female cast. Prince-Bythewood, though, was ready to battle to make it happen, even if The Woman King took seven years to take from pitch to the screen.
"We put all this work into it because our names are on it, this is what we're leaving," she says over Zoom. "I believe, these actors believe, that what we do can have an impact and can absolutely change the world. When you have a platform as big as this, let's entertain, absolutely, but let's say something as well."
Fact and fiction
Telling a story based on historical events comes with a set of challenges, though. The Woman King will be many people’s first introduction to the Agojie – and that means there’s pressure to get it right while also delivering an entertaining and emotional movie.
"I do the same thing when I’m watching a historical epic, I'm taking what I'm seeing up there as fact," Prince-Bythewood says. "I knew that we created fictitious characters, but we put them in an absolutely real world.” She points to the conflict the Dahomey has with the slave trade and that they were the “only kingdom in all of Africa that allowed women to have an equal voice in the government and the council" as being examples of very real aspects of the story.
For the filmmaker, this also meant doing judicious research into the Agojie, one of the few all-female armies documented in modern history. It meant getting everything from their clothes to their food right, as well as some of the more unique tactics they used, like putting palm oil on their bodies to make them harder to catch and sharpening their nails to use as weapons. However, the truth for Prince-Bythewood was not only in the historical accuracy, but also in the beauty of this story and of Africa. "I wanted a beauty for this film," she says. "I wanted to give it the beauty in the bigness that these women, these real women, that we were embodying, their story that's never been told. I wanted to give it that."
Much of that beauty was achieved through the stunning sunrises and sunsets that mark the story – an added benefit of filming on location in South Africa. "There’s just an emotion to a sunrise in the sunset," Prince-Bythewood adds. "It's a beginning, it can be an ending. But even sometimes, subconsciously it can just make you feel."
A dream cast
There was also pressure on getting the cast right. The filmmaker had to find a group of women capable of balancing the intense training schedule necessary for playing a warrior with the ability to convey the story’s emotion. After Viola Davis was cast in the lead role of General Nanisca (Davis also serves as a producer), the rest fell into place. James Bond star Lashana Lynch plays the razor-fingered Izogie; Bruised’s Sheila Atim is Nanica’s closest confidant Amenza; and Thuso Mbedu – best known for The Underground Railroad – portrays Nawi, a new recruit who joins the Agojie after an arranged marriage goes wrong.
When it came to King Ghezo – the leader of the Dahomey people – Prince-Bythewood only had one name in mind for the role: John Boyega. He quickly agreed, and his casting helped secure finances for the movie
"It's the second time I've been able to support a movie in that way and I think it's lovely," John Boyega tells Total Film. "[Rather] than just talk about your support for Black women, what better way to actually show it than do something about it? I'm glad that I was able to do that through accepting a job role, which is like the softest form of charity.”
That wasn’t the only reason Boyega wanted to get involved – he was also drawn to the character. Though best known for playing Finn in Star Wars, Boyega has recently focussed on more character-driven, nuanced roles, whether Leroy Logan in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe or Brian Brown-Easley in 892. King Ghezo is another example of the same.
"I always like playing characters who are multi-layered, like all of us as human beings," he says. "You can meet us in the streets when you get deeper and find out more different sides to us. I've always been connected to characters like that. And, just as an actor, [those roles] gave me an opportunity just to branch out in comparison to the stuff that I've done before."
Ghezo is an important figure in Dahomey’s history. In The Woman King, we meet him as a leader torn between whether to eschew his brother’s legacy of connections with the slave trade or to keep with it for the riches.
"I like playing a character that's so pivotal to the education of African history, of Black history," Boyega adds. "A complex character who makes you discover other sides to that narrative. King Ghezo is somebody that represents a person that definitely made decisions in several different ways – and that affected his people in several different ways. And the more and more you get to know him, the more and more you get to explore what that necessarily means, in terms of the movie and the actual history that's on the ground."
Oscars on the horizon
With The Woman King now playing outside of North America, the awards chatter is getting louder, with pundits already placing odds on the movie picking up nominations in best film categories. Prince-Bythewood is keeping a level head though, letting the words of her leading lady do the talking.
"I'm gonna use Viola’s answer because then I don't look like an asshole," she says. "What this film is, what everybody put into it, the extraordinary performances that these actors gave – and not only the extraordinary performances but the degree of difficulty in the amount of training they did to be able to do their own fighting and stunts so that they can embody these characters fully – it's absolutely lovely, and we're just going to embrace it."
Boyega equally steers clear of any awards chat about his own performance. "I’ve never experienced Oscar buzz," he laughs. "The Oscar buzz I experience is when my next-door neighbor tells me when I’m taking the bins out, 'You should have got an Oscar for that episode of 24.' I don’t get to experience it the way everybody else does."
He’s instead keen to champion his co-stars. "I do believe that Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, and Lashana Lynch should be nominated. And if they do that wayward stuff this year… you know what’s up. But if you watch the movie – come on, it writes itself." Over to you, Academy.
The Woman King is in cinemas now. For what else is out in 2022 and beyond, check out our guide to upcoming movie releases.