Gina Prince-Bythewood describes her road to making The Woman King as a “sustained fight for 25 years.” But she says with this cast, led by the formidable Viola Davis, in this movie, a Braveheart-esque historical action drama about female warriors in West Africa … the sustained fight was worth it.
“It’s an amazing thing to fight as hard as one has to fight for your vision,” she tells Polygon just two days before the film’s release.
Prince-Bythewood, who came up in television in the early ’90s, broke out as a writer-director with the 2000 indie Love & Basketball. But while she seemed to be on the familiar Sundance-hit-to-superhero-movie director pipeline, Love & Basketball’s success opened the door to an industry that still couldn’t imagine a Black woman making any high-profile studio project, let alone four-quadrant-friendly action blockbusters. In the two decades that followed, Prince-Bythewood swung from TV to dramatic features, with projects like Beyond the Lights and TV’s Shots Fired, all while hoping to finally get a crack at breaking some on-screen bones. The chance finally came with 2020’s full-bore action drama The Old Guard, which caught the attention of Netflix viewers everywhere — and Viola Davis. Set to star and produce The Woman King, it was obvious to Davis that Prince-Bythewood was the person to make a film where the Fences Oscar-winner smashes brutes twice her size into oblivion. The director was happy to oblige.
The Woman King stars Davis as Nanisca, defender of the Dahomey Kingdom led by King Ghezo (John Boyega). Nanisca is general to the Agojie, an all-women military faction trained for Spartan-like deadliness. With the violent Oyo Empire capturing and enslaving the Dahomey people, and European coin fueling the African slave trade, Nanisca prepares her warriors for war, especially the lethal Izogie (Lashana Lynch), loyal Amenza (Sheila Atim), and hungry trainee Nawi (Thuso Mbedu). The stakes and scope gave Prince-Bythewood the canvas she’s been waiting to paint for two and a half decades.
In a deep-dive interview with Polygon, Prince-Bythewood talks about the rigorous fight training required to build a worthy screen army, how the Agojie’s real-life history energized the action, and what it meant to bring Black actors to screen this way, arguably for the first time.
Did you start with real-world history as a bedrock of setpieces, or start with the action, then fact-check your choices?
When I go see a historical epic, for me as a filmmaker and as me as the audience, I’m looking at that screen and taking it as truth. And I probably shouldn’t do that as much, knowing what people do. But Braveheart is in my top 10 of all time. I’ve watched it 100 times. That was really the template. But I knew we had this really good script, written by Dana [Stevens], and then it’s my job as the director to do that deep dive into the research. So much of what I found got me excited to then put it in the script. More truth, more authenticity of who these women were, who the kingdom was, that dynamic, socially and in the government, and what was going on the outskirts of that — a big David-vs.-Goliath conflict versus the Oyo. People are going to take this as truth, so I wanted to put as much truth as I could into it. But also the truth made it a better story.
What’s a specific way history amplified your vision?
There were a couple of things. One of the fascinating things about these women is that they legit beat men — so how did they do that? And I learned about their training, the fact that they trained 24/7, and that they were taught to not show pain. They literally had drills to do that. Think about if you’re fighting someone, you’re stabbing them, they’re showing nothing, and how intimidating that can be. So that’s where our spear-challenge scene came from. And when you’re working with Lashana, she inspires you. You want to give her more and more and more, because she’s fucking amazing.
And then the music and the dancing, learning that that was an integral part of the culture as well, where they would create these elaborate choreographed dances and songs to get ready for war, and to celebrate the king, celebrate each other — adding that to the script was exciting. I didn’t know going in that I would get to play with that.
How much modern dance went into those scenes? At times the moves feel like contemporary stepping.
Absolutely historical. So much of what they did has been passed on for generations. And we found this video that was shot in the 1960s of descendents of these women doing the traditional dances. So much of the aggression, the knife-slashing, the stabbing, it was all part of the choreography. So we were able to pull a number of the actual moves and then infuse it with more dance to give it roundness.
Where did the conversation with your composer Terence Blanchard begin? The sound is thunderous, and it speaks volumes in scenes without dialogue.
I knew I wanted to use Terence as soon as I got the gig. He’s absolutely brilliant. And I knew I wanted a combination of Terence and an African artist to do the songs, so we got Lebo M, who is known for The Lion King, most famously. And the conversations of what we wanted it to be were amazing. We wanted to create an orchestral cultural score that gives us a classic feel, but done with African instrumentation. And then voice; I love voice, it gives such emotion if used in the right way. So it sounded really cool, but could we really do that?
I literally locked the film maybe a couple days before I needed to go to Scotland, because that was the only place in the world that had an orchestra available for us. Everything was so rushed. The score was only like 75% finished, that’s how rushed it was. But Terence has said that orchestra was the best he’s ever worked with in his career, so everything happened for a reason. He would literally hand music off to somebody, they got the notes and ran it to the orchestra, and then they’re playing it. That was the energy for four days.
The songs communicate so much without being translated into English. What was behind the decision not to communicate the actual lyrics?
I made that decision pretty early on. I knew we were going to do accented English [for the dialogue in the film], but I still wanted an element of the real language within it. So how could we do that in a way that doesn’t take you out of it? And I thought in the chanting and the songs, we could do it… which meant the actors had to learn all that on top of everything!
In the battle dance, what she’s saying is, “Fear not. Face it head on. Relentlessly we will fight.” Obviously, we say that in English twice. In the tribute to the king, the words are about praising King Ghezo. “When we are here to give her life and to fight for a human, for our kingdom, and for each other.” I thought about translating it on screen, and then I decided that I didn’t want to take you out of it.
The cast you’ve assembled delivers on every demand this movie makes, but I was particularly blown away by your young lead, Thuso Mbedu. How did you know she could carry the film?
I knew she was the one as soon as I saw her, but my hesitation was… I thought she was 16. I hadn’t seen Thuso in anything. I knew that she was a lead in Underground Railroad, but it hadn’t come out yet. Obviously Barry [Jenkins] is impeccable with his casting. So I was intrigued.
I knew I wanted our cast to be a balance of everybody from all over — African-Americans and South Africans and West Africans and Londoners. And so [casting Thuso, a South African actor] was an opportunity to give that balance I wanted. But it’s chops first: “Who is best for the role?” And as soon as she came up on my screen — because it was Zoom auditions, which was so hard — she leapt through. I immediately cared about her. She was doing things that nobody else was doing, subtle things. I could see her mind working in her reactions, but not in the way an actor “working.” Everything felt real in the moment.
Viola Davis had a very clear idea of her character Nanisca, and the physical and emotional arc The Woman King should take her on. How did that deepen when the two of you started tackling the material together?
Viola wrote a whole notebook of backstory. And while something like that should be for the actor, she did share some with me, and I had the other actors share their backstories. I like to have that knowledge for myself, and infuse some of that into the script.
The thing Viola brought that was not in the script, and it was such an obvious thing — two days before we were starting to shoot, we were in rehearsal, and she said, “Why are we hiding the fact that I’m 56 years old? I’m 56.” In the script we were saying that she was younger, and not dealing with the reality — and why not? She’s an aging warrior. She is at a time in her life where you question everything. “Is what I put my body through, my mind through, worth it? How can I have an impact on this kingdom?” And it was ultimately to push for change. So she wanted to use that. That’s where the moment in the baths came from, where she’s feeling her shoulder. Of course she would ache after battle. That’s the beautiful thing about Viola, she has no vanity. [She’ll do] whatever is best for the character.
How do you push actors who may not normally perform action work to bring such a palpable level of force to the camera?
It was incredible training. It started with me telling Viola and then all the other actors, “You’re going to be doing your own fighting and stunts.” It’s just better action.
Did you learn that on The Old Guard?
Absolutely. For The Old Guard, my template was the bathroom fight in M:I6, one of the greatest fights ever. So knowing what it brings to have longer takes, to know [the person doing the fighting] is really the actor, to get the performance in every moment — that really taught me a lot. So in The Old Guard, that’s what we focused on.
This was different because [only] Lashana had ever done this before. So how do I get a group of women who hadn’t done anything on this level near to the point where I can trust them with the action, and an audience can fully believe them? That was a leap of faith. Danny Hernandez, who I met on Old Guard, he was my fight coordinator — he was my second call, because I saw the way he worked with actors. They trust him implicitly, he inspires them.
We talked about how we couldn’t fit them in our box. The training started months before, six days a week, two times a day. It was the hardest thing they’d ever done. It was also part of the rehearsal process, to build up character. Doing that to your mind and body changes the way you walk, changes the way you think about yourself. They became athletes. They became warriors. And it completely bonded them, because they were going through this hell together. That kind of sisterhood that we built [in training] showed up on screen.
Did the cultural specificity of the Dahomey allow you to rethink action, compared to the more contemporary setting of The Old Guard?
I spoke about Braveheart, but Slumdog Millionaire was also a template. I remember seeing that movie, and the cultural specificity took me into a world I had no clue about. It didn’t push me away — it drew me in. So that gave me confidence, because I wanted an audience to feel the same way about this story and these women.
Foremost, their weapons were works of art. I got to go to the Fowler Museum [at UCLA] prior to shooting, and the archives have stuff from the actual kingdom of Dahomey. To see these weapons and the designs… everything in the movie was mimicked from the real weaponry. And in those days, it was all hand-to-hand combat, unless you had the spear. So the action was about bringing intensity face to face, and showing how women beat men. [So we included] the fact that they use their nails, that they would soak them in brine to harden them, file them into points — that was a weapon. Palm oil on the skin so their opponents couldn’t grab hold of them — that was a weapon.
And then there’s the violence the Agojie put themselves through to train. How did you film the obstacle-course training sequence where the women tear through a trench of razor-sharp brambles? That looked rough.
[The Agojie] had to go through that three times in real life! We didn’t have that much screen time.
Figuring out how to shoot that was tough, because I knew you had to believe it as an audience. And I couldn’t send my actors through it, even though some would have been willing to. But everything on the outside, right in front of the camera, was real, and inside was manufactured brambles. They used 3D to build all those brambles, so I was always shooting through real brambles, and it tricks the audience’s mind.
The Woman King also plays as a frank portrait of African slavery. Were there challenges in matching the Hollywood grandeur with that blunt portrayal?
It was something I knew we needed to tell the truth about. Almost every society engaged in slavery in some respect, and the difference here, prior to Europeans coming — as in any other type of society, it was about prisoners of war. Never commerce — that’s what Europeans brought to it. But we also set this film specifically at the time where the kingdom was at a crossroads, and Ghezo was having to decide [whether to capture other Africans and sell them to European slavers].
Because it was literally — half the kingdom wanted to abolish their involvement, and the other half wanted to keep it, because it brought them wealth. So the Agojie and Nanisca represented that group that wanted to abolish it, and Ghezo had to make that decision. In America, certainly, [Black people are] taught that our existence in America begins with enslavement. We’re not taught that we came from so far beyond that. Having that knowledge going up can absolutely be a game-changer. So I’m hoping, foremost, you go and you’re entertained, and you have fun with the film, but you get to see yourself reflected in a way you never have, and change your mindset.
To that point, there’s a scene in the film where Izogie braids Nawi’s hair, as the two have a heart-to-heart about being Agojie. The scene recalled a similar moment between Sanaa Lathan and Regina Hall in your first film, Love & Basketball. Even the framing felt like an echo. Was that conscious, or does it speak to a larger drive in the way your work focuses on Black women?
I literally until you said that did not connect those two! But originally in the script, the scene between those two women was that Izogie brings her a bracelet. Knowing how important hair was, knowing how connective braiding one’s hair can be, I felt like that was a more interesting way to do the scene, so I changed to that. That was really important to Lashana. She said she’s always wanted to play a scene like that, because that’s what she does in real life with her nieces. And yeah, there’s just a beauty in the quietness… what they’re talking about is women who want to be great, be the best. I love that. Seemingly it’s a contrast. Braiding hair seems like a very feminine thing. But wanting to be great is feminine. I hope a throughline in my work is redefining “female” and femininity.
The last 10 years have seen an important conversation in the cinematography space about proper, artful lighting for Black skin, especially dark skin. It’s been so mishandled over the last century. Was this a conversation you broached with your DP, Polly Morgan?
This was a huge thing. Going in, the first conversation I had with Polly is that we needed to light our women better than they’ve ever looked before. Because there’s been an absolute history of Black actors being lit horribly. Right before we shot this film... I’m not gonna say the movie, but one of our actors was in a huge movie with a very respected director and a very respected DP in a very respected studio, and you could not see her in some scenes. It was so offensive to me. How could you go through this entire process, not seeing what I’m seeing? Offensive. I told Polly, “This can never happen in this film. It’s idiotic.” And so that was absolutely every day, “How do they look? Are we honoring these women and showing their beauty, or shooting them beautifully?” And Polly did.
Had you considered doing a film like this in the past? Would it have been an option?
Absolutely. It was where I wanted to go early in my career. The industry hadn’t caught up to me yet. The doors had been closed for a long time, certainly in the action space for women. And it wasn’t until Wonder Woman and the success Patty [Jenkins] had with that first one that absolutely opened the door. [Pitching those types of movies earlier in my career] wasn’t even an option.
Right before I did the Marvel Cloak and Dagger pilot [in 2017], I shifted my thinking from “I wish I could do that” to “I’m going to do that.” And then it was OK, how do I plot this in this industry? To get in the door, you have to have done action before, but how do you get in the door? So it started with that pilot, and that got me into the conversation. Because it’s Marvel that led me to [Sony and Marvel’s Silver Sable and Black Cat movie] Silver and Black. And I knew exactly how to fix that script. Now, that was a year and a half of my life. It would have been fucking cool. It’s an incredible disappointment, because I came in so specifically with my pitch and never wavered. But there was a reticence as we continue to go on where [I felt] like, I don’t think this is gonna get made. And I finally had to walk away, for my sanity. But the moment I walked away, the project I wanted Silver and Black to be showed up in The Old Guard.
It’s a big deal to walk away from something like that. And there’s a part of me that was like, You don’t walk away from something like that. But I realized I wasn’t happy, and I saw the writing on the wall. Also, it was a conversation I had with Patty. I saw her at an event, and we just got to talking about when she walked away from an opportunity [to direct Thor: The Dark World]. And right around the corner came Wonder Woman. So it was about having the courage to walk away if you’re not seeing that you can do your best work in an environment. But I ended it well with [Sony Pictures CEO] Tom Rothman. So when The Woman King came up, there was a trust there.
You’ve evolved into a bit of a journeyman director who can’t be defined by one type of movie, which is less and less common today. So this question is even more exciting: What’s next for you? Where do you see the next challenge?
It’s been four years nonstop, because The Old Guard went right into The Woman King. But I have two projects, and I have to decide between the two. There’s one really big one that’s set up… I’ll just say it’s in space.
We love space.
My goal is to put us in every genre. Disrupt genre. It’s an incredible story based on an incredible short story. And then the other is, after these two big movies, I’ve been wanting to write a story that’s been in my head for four years now, a more personal story going back to where it started.
There’s a lot of talk about The Woman King being the kind of movie studios rarely gamble on. Did it feel high-stakes? Is it the movie everyone wanted to make?
The pressure I had on this one was incredible, because the actors trusted the vision implicitly and trusted me and gave me everything, so I could not disappoint them. And doing something that hadn’t been done before, that’s exciting. But it’s also scary. To have the response we’ve gotten from it is everything you would hope for as an artist. People get it and respond to it, and people are not only enjoying the film, but understanding the significance of it.