*Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis is speaking out about her latest role as an African warrior named Nanisca in the upcoming film “The Woman King.”
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and co-starring John Boyega as King Ghezo, the film is set to open in theaters on September 16. Per Vanity Fair, the story follows “the Agojie (also known as Amazons), a real-life army of women warriors who defended the powerful West African kingdom of Dahomey in present-day Benin during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.”
We reported previously that the film is inspired by true events. The project is based on an original idea by actress Maria Bello, who will produce via her Jack Blue Productions.
“‘The Woman King’ is the powerful true story of an extraordinary mother-daughter relationship,” TriStar president Hannah Minghella previously said when it was announced that the studio would oversee the film with Nicole Brown. “And there’s no one more extraordinary than Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o to bring them to life.”
Vanity Fair spoke to Davis and Prince-Bythewood about this action drama, which has been described as a Black female version of “Braveheart.” Check out a few excerpts below.
How did it feel to connect with the largely unknown history of the Agojie?
Davis: It was a different state of mind to tap into that spirit—that bravery. Certainly, that’s not a mindset that I carry on a day-to-day basis. I’m someone who carries pepper spray and a little alarm on my keychain.
Gina, this idea of the warrior woman often appears in your work going back to Love & Basketball. Why?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: I grew up an athlete. The women around me were athletes. There was a normalcy to how I thought about myself. You fight. Aggression is good. Leave it all out on the floor. And as I got older, it surprised me how few women had the advantage of growing up like that. That innate warrior that I believe we all have is dormant in so many women because it wasn’t encouraged or valued.
The battle scenes in the film appear to be graphic, and culturally specific. We see dark-skinned Black women with well-oiled bodies, muscles, and serrated fingernails that are used as murder weapons.
Prince-Bythewood: My approach was that you don’t need to add anything to the story. These women were fascinating and didn’t need to be embellished or glossy. I wanted it to be real and visceral and raw.
Viola, you’ve said this film is your magnum opus.
Davis: I’ve never had a role like this before. It’s transformative. And to be a producer on it, and to know that I had a hand in bringing it to fruition…. There’s always a vision you have for your career, but there are very few roles as an actress of color. Dark skin with a wide nose and big lips. I’m just gonna continue to say it. Those stories are extraordinarily limited.
Was it a struggle to get the movie made?
Davis: It’s always hard. It is hard to be an artist, hard to be a Black artist, and even harder to be a Black female artist.
Prince-Bythewood: It takes so long to get to a greenlight, especially to tell a story like this. There are so many hurdles—and the finish line keeps getting moved. I just kept picturing the first time I would be on set, and say “action,” and look around and be surrounded by us. I held that thought with me until it happened.
Most of your audience won’t know anything about this buried history. How much did you both know about the Agojie when you came to this project?
Davis: The only thing I knew, literally, was that there were women somewhere in Africa that were called Amazons.
Prince-Bythewood: All I knew was that the Dora Milaje in Black Panther were based on real warriors.
Will it be difficult for the average American moviegoer to digest these images of ferociously powerful, dark-skinned female warriors? I kept thinking as I watched the early footage that Black women have never been seen this way onscreen before.
Prince-Bythewood: If you can digest Avatar, then you can digest this.
Check out the official trailer for “The Woman King” below.