Unearthing Historical Truths: Dana Stevens and Gina Prince-Bythewood Discuss 'The Woman King'
By Sonya Alexander • September 15, 2022
Screenwriter Dana Stevens and director Gina Prince-Bythewood share their journeys as artists and of making this film. This 63-day shoot was a tough project to get made and was years in the making. Hopefully, audiences will embrace this like they would any well-made, male-led epic. Like they did 'Black Panther.'
In Ridley Scott’s 2000 brutal epic Gladiator, Djimon Hounsou’s Juba tells Russell Crowe’s Maximus, “You have a great name. You must kill your name before he (Commodus) kills you.” This line from this high-testosterone actioner mirrors one in the upcoming female-led battler The Woman King. Viola Davis’s General Nanisca tells her young Agojie trainee Nawi, played by the impressive Thuso Mbedu, “To be a warrior, you must kill your tears.” Viola Davis, like Russell Crowe, has a presence that fills the big screen. One wonders at times if the screen is even big enough for her. She exudes such confidence and beauty as the leader of these committed women that there’s never any question that they’re in good hands with her.
Nawi also has shades of Prey’s (2022) Naru. Striving to pass tests to become the ultimate warrior amongst their clans, they both utilize blades attached to string as weapons. They are young, strong tribal women navigating themselves in male-dominated communities. Comparing The Woman King to other films illustrates the similarities in cultures more than their differences. For those who might think The Woman King is too “woke,” it is simply displaying a part of world history that many may not know about. The film manages to examine the intricacy of the Dahomey empire while still being an entertaining action/adventure. There’s drama, humor, and hardcore fight scenes. These actors don’t just play the roles, they inhabit them.
Braveheart (1995), Gladiator, and The Northman (2022) are fierce depictions of men in battle. The Woman King is equally as ferocious, except the warriors are women. Based on a real faction of African soldiers, the Agojie, these female characters aren’t just fighters. They are a sisterhood, a family, that loves each other and their tribe. They rotate within the complex ecosystem of African geopolitics, always aware that their role has meaning for their people as a whole. They are what the Dora Milaje in Black Panther are modeled after. What makes this unflinching look at history stand out is not only the all-female warriors aspect but the spiritual truss of the story.
In Gladiator, the afterlife and the spiritual realm were a major part of that story’s universe. Yoruba is a part of the women of the Agojie and the Dahomey Empire. This multidimensional belief network has spiritual deities, Orishas. The journey for any writer or filmmaker is always spiritual on some level. Screenwriter Dana Stevens (Safe Haven, Fatherhood) and director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, The Old Guard) share their journeys as artists and of making this film. This 63-day shoot was a tough project to get made and was years in the making. Hopefully, audiences will embrace this like they would any well-made, male-led epic. Like they did Black Panther.
Oshun – River deity, goddess of divine femininity
A large part of the cast and crew for this film is female, including the writer and director. They’ve both worked in television and film. Having Viola Davis attached made Dana really strive to do her best before and after she was hired to write The Woman King.
"I'd just finished doing a project at TriStar. It was an adaptation of a book The Nightingale, which is about two sisters during the Nazi occupation of France. One of them is a freedom fighter and the other one doesn't look at herself as a hero. They both end up being heroes and brave. Nicole Brown was my executive and we really liked working together. They had just got into business with JuVee, Viola's company, and Maria Bello to do Woman King. They were looking for a writer. They sent me the look book which was amazing. I had the opportunity to go in and pitch ideas. I'm a gigantic Viola fan so I was really excited about it. I was very excited to look at the research and think about doing something about powerful women. And also something about African culture that had never been seen before.
To collaborate with an actress of Viola's caliber and to also be able to write and know that it's unquestionable that these lines will be said by Viola...It's like having her voice in your head and it's thrilling. Also, the collaboration with Gina was very rich. All the actors had a chance to weigh in on stuff they thought their character needed. One of the things that blows my mind about the movie is how strong these characters are. They're so vivid and different.
I was inspired in a general sense by Braveheart in the sense that rhythmically, how is a movie a battle movie but also maybe have a love story, camaraderie of the men. I felt this movie was world building, like Black Panther and Game of Thrones. The audience has two hours to learn everything that you want them to learn about this story and these characters. You don't have to put it all in the beginning. You can also trust silence and the actors. You don't have to say it four times, you can say it one time then use the real estate you have to say something different about them."
Gina is selective about projects but this one had her name written all over it.
"I was doing The Old Guard when they sent me the script. Viola Davis was attached. I saw myself in these women and I wanted the world to see these women. Not just the fact that they were warriors but also their incredible humanity. I wanted to show this side of Africa that we rarely get to see.
So much of the history of these women was written from the colonizers point of view. We had to be cognizant of this because the people writing it benefitted from dehumanizing us and portraying us as savages. We had to sift through this and find those that were telling our story the right way."
?runmila - Orisha of wisdom, knowledge, and divination.
Trying to get started in entertainment can be daunting. Gina got her start in the writers’ room of A Different World (1987-1993).
"Having Yvette Lee Bowser and Debbie Allen on set was so inspiring. I feel lucky that was my first writing experience, being around those Black women I admired. I also met a writer there, Reggie Rock Bythewood, who I eventually married. His latest show is Swagger. My background as an athlete trained me well for writing. I never send anything out unless it’s ready to go out."
Elegbara - the divine messenger, trickster god of chance, principle of indeterminacy, and essence of fate among the Yorubas in West Africa and all those who possess him, by extension, all of humankind
Every project provides a chance to learn something new about yourself and your craft.
Gina’s takeaway from working on The Woman King is slightly different than Dana’s.
"I learned that vulnerability is strength. That’s true for the characters and for me. Nanisca is a strong woman but when she allows herself to become vulnerable, she becomes even stronger."
Dana discovered to take more risks with her work.
"I learned to be brave, go ahead and embrace as large of a canvas as you can. There may have been a version where there was no spirituality or no comedy. But we wanted to have it all. There's no reason why you can't try for that. The raw material can expose the soul of the project. It's like chipping away at a sculpture until you get the movie that's going to be."
The Woman King will be released exclusively in movie theaters on September 16, 2022.