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'The Woman King' Director on Sharing Inspirations With 'Black Panther' and Taking Part in Stunt Training

'As a director, if I'm going to ask you to do something, I have to be willing to do it myself,' Gina Prince-Bythewood tells Metacritic.

Amber Dowling
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Viola Davis in 'The Woman King'

Sony Pictures

When Gina Prince-Bythewood got her hands on The Woman King script, the film had been in development for years. Viola Davis was already attached, as was TriStar Pictures. But it wasn't until Black Panther hit that the movie was put on the fast track, and Prince-Bythewood was considered to tell the historically-based story of an Agojie warrior and her sisters in The Kingdom of Dahomey. 

"Black Panther changed the game in Hollywood, and it certainly changed it in terms of perception and Hollywood seeing our values — even though we've always seen it," Prince-Bythewood tells Metacritic during the Toronto International Film Festival, where The Woman King had its world premiere. 

"Within five pages of this incredible story and the introduction of these warriors, I knew immediately I wanted to shoot it. These are characters we've never seen before and they look like me. This is a movie we haven't gotten to see before. That's exciting as an artist; I had to make this film," she explains.

The Woman King follows Nanisca (Davis), the leader of the Agojie in the 1820s. As she protects the West African kingdom of Dahomey and its king, King Ghezo (John Boyega), she also dreams of a kingdom that no longer sells its own people for survival but turns to palm oil for its wealth, instead.   

At the same time, a young girl named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) aspires to join the Agojie and develops a surprising bond with Nanisca in the process. Sheila Atim, Lashana Lynch and Jimmy Odukoya also star.  

If the Agojie sound familiar, that's because they're having a bit of a moment in pop culture. They're the inspiration behind the Dora Milaje Warriors in Black Panther, and there have been several documentaries delving into the 300-year Dahomey Amazons history. 

Prince-Bythewood, who has a solid sports background, has long been a fan of such movies as Braveheart, Gladiator, and The Last of the Mohicans. To craft the four distinct battle scenes in The Woman King, the cast underwent vigorous training — which the director joined in on.  

"As a director, if I'm going to ask you to do something, I have to be willing to do it myself," she explains. "That's my philosophy. I knew this level of training was going to be part of the rehearsal process and part of them building character. And as a director, I wanted to be a part of that." 

That training meant that when it came time to perform the battle sequences, the actors were ready to do their own stunts. Prince-Bythewood reveals everyone did 100=percent of their own stunts except two actors, who still performed "about 90-percent of them." Furthermore, each of the battles tell a specific story, and the cameras never veer far from the Agojie faces — even if they're slaughtering someone else.  

"I wanted it to be raw and visceral and real. And so that set the tone," Prince-Bythewood explains. "I also wanted it to be the actors in these moments, and you can only get that with the actor giving us performance —  making us care enough about them to care about what happens within the action. I had the luxury of not having to turn around stunt doubles to achieve that." 

She believes the result is an intricate story that tackles an untold narrative in terms of slavery and Black female power. 

"We're not showing victimization, we're showing resistance. This is a group of incredible warriors who were the protectors of the kingdom, the protectors of their people. They resisted in such a profound way," she says. 

"My goal is for people to look up on screen and see their humanity. Be inspired by these women. Aspire to be these women and to see themselves in these women. That's really the difference that's been happening in Hollywood. I see myself in Braveheart and I see myself in The Notebook. It doesn't matter that I don't look like any of those folks, I can identify with them in their feelings. What they're going through is universal. That's what I want for this — for people to be able to see these women as warriors and be inspired by them." 


Get to know Gina Prince-Bythewood:
This groundbreaking director is also a writer and made her mark in Hollywood in 2000 with the beloved movie Love & Basketball (Metascore: 70). Since then she's also written and directed Beyond the Lights (73), wrote the screenplay for Nappily Ever After (63) and Before I Fell (58), and directed the 2020 movie The Old Guard (70) starring Charlize Theron and Chiwetel Ejiofor