ABOVE PHOTO: Viola Davis in “The Woman King.” (Sony Pictures via AP)
By Jake Coyle
NEW YORK — Gina Prince-Bythewood didn’t get very far into reading the script for “The Woman King,” a historical epic about a real West African army of female warriors, before she knew she wanted to direct it.
“Literally five pages into it I knew it was going to be my next film,” Prince-Bythewood says. “I felt so connected to these women. I was so excited. When they rise up out of the grass I was like, ‘Ohhhh, I want to shoot that.’”
When “The Woman King” — which does begin with the imposing image of Viola Davis and a regiment of female soldiers stealthily emerging from tall savannah grass in the moonlight, with swords drawn — rises up in theaters on Sept. 16, it will emerge as a potent force on a movie landscape that has seldom seen something like it.
Drawing from the real history of the Agojie, women warriors who defended the West African kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin) from the 1600s until the late 19th century, “The Woman King” is muscular action-drama that puts female power front and center at a time when women’s rights are imperiled.
“It’s a time right now in our country, and it permeates worldwide, where women are feeling completely attacked. In some ways, it feels like we’re powerless in the situation,” Prince-Bythewood said in a recent interview. “We can look up on the screen and see thae warrior in these women and believe we all have this innate warrior in ourselves and believe that we can stand up and fight.
“I want women to be able to tap into their fight because that’s what we’re going to need in this moment,” added Prince-Bythewood.
“The Woman King,” which will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in early September before Sony Pictures opens it in theaters, is a clear standout in the upcoming fall movie season. Davis stars as an African warrior named Nanisca, with Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch (“No Time to Die”), Sheila Atim co-starring as fellow soldiers. The film unfolds against the backdrop of the slave trade, a scourge that the Dahomey king (John Boyega) mulls a response to. The action, though, is driven by the strength and cunning of the Agojie, and by Davis’ titanic presence.
For Prince-Bythewood, “The Woman King” is a kind of mission statement and capstone to her 30-year career. A high-school basketball player and a track runner at the University of California, Los Angeles, Prince-Bythewood brought that athletic mindset to filmmaking, breaking through with 2000’s “Love & Basketball,” with Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps.
“Love & Basketball” has only gotten better with time (“Double or nothing?” remains one of the movies’ most romantic lines). And in 2020, “The Old Guard” brought Prince-Bythewood to a wider audience than ever before. The Netflix superhero film, with Charlize Theron, became one of the streamer’s most-watched films. (A sequel, which Prince-Bythewood is producing, is in production.)
“‘The Old Guard’ was the first film I did for streaming,” she says. “I didn’t know how it was going to feel given how much I love theatrical. There’s something amazing about going global in an instant. But the release Sony has planned for this is global, too.”
And to her, “The Woman King” stands as a metaphor for the film industry, where such stories and protagonists have rarely made it to the big screen. Most of the department heads on the film were women. Dana Stevens wrote the screenplay. Cathy Shulman and Maria Bello are producers. Polly Morgan shot it. Terilyn A. Shropshire edited it.
“There are great people out there who are not getting opportunities, so I look past the resume,” says Prince-Bythewood. “At a certain point, someone did that for me. Certainly, Mike De Luca for ‘Love & Basketball.’ So it’s exciting to have that type of energy where people get up from a production meeting to look around and see mostly women. I think they all were warriors in what we had to pull to get this movie made.”