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The women of ‘The Woman King’ share their war stories: ‘This must happen again’

Thuso Mbedu, Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim of "The Woman King"
From left: Thuso Mbedu, Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim of ‘The Woman King’ photographed at the LA Times Photo Studio at the RBC House during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 2022 in Toronto, Canada.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” is something unique for Hollywood: a historical epic with four Black women in prominent heroic roles.

Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim share the screen as members of the Agojie, a highly skilled team of all-female warriors who defended the West Africa kingdom of Dahomey in the 19th century. The Agojie were very real, but the movie — in grand epic movie tradition — spins a compelling dramatic tale with fictional characters, universal themes and massive set pieces.

The Agojie also happen to be the inspiration behind the Dora Milaje of Marvel’s blockbuster “Black Panther.” But that, along with substantial critical acclaim ahead of their releases, is where the similarities between the two films end. “Gina says all the time that if it were not for ‘Black Panther’s’ success, ‘The Woman King’ would not have happened,” said Davis. “But I encourage people to understand that it’s not ‘Black Panther.’ It is its own movie and its own narrative.”

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The Times caught up with the cast of “The Woman King” to discuss working with their trail-blazing director, shooting in South Africa and the “glorious” opportunity to work side by side.

Female warriors in a field of wheat
Viola Davis as Nanisca in “The Woman King.”
(Ilze Kitshoff / Sony Pictures)
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What excited you the most about this project?

Viola Davis: It is a movie that really fully gives us our agency and autonomy in terms of storytelling. We are at the center of the narrative: dark-skinned, Black women warriors who are fully realized human beings. It gave us a chance to operate in a genre that [we’ve always wanted to be a part of but that] has predominantly been designated to white males. What it’s going to prove is that Black women can lead the box office and we can translate to a global audience.

Sheila Atim: So often, it feels like we are [alone] within a company of people or one of the few. [Or] even if we are the majority on a set, we are still serving a white gaze within the storytelling. [Being able to] just turn around and everywhere I looked, there were Black people both in front of and behind the camera, was something that I knew I wanted to be involved with.

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Tell me about working with Gina Prince-Bythewood.

Lashana Lynch: I’ve been a fan of Gina’s since “Love and Basketball” and you could see how important this was to her. I could tell that she was bursting to have a collaborative set and that made me feel very seen and appreciated as an actor. I don’t often get [the chance] to tell a story about my people or my history, our ancestors, and have the filmmaker really want to hear what you have to say. As a Black actor, to have a Black director at the helm meant knowing that your attributes, physicality, mind and everything that comes with being a Black woman is already taken care of. You don’t have to change certain elements of the script in order for the filmmaker to understand how to present this Black woman on screen, how to shoot her, how to light her, how to ensure that she is fully realized.

Thuso Mbedu: Gina was in my very first audition session. She didn’t wait for casting [to make choices] and then only come on later, she was sitting in that first session. She actively fought for me in getting this role, believed in me when I was just happy to audition. After getting the role, she joined me in Muay Thai classes. She didn’t have to do that, but she made it her thing to [support] me. She’s a director who, when I thought I was [being] incognito about not feeling OK on set, I would get a text from her at night saying, “Are you OK?”

Director in a facemask speaks to an actor dressed in the garb of a warrior
Viola Davis, left, and director Gina Prince-Bythewood on the set of “The Woman King.”
(Ilze Kitshoff / Sony Pictures)

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Davis: Gina showed up at our [production] office and I could tell she was nervous. I remember her crying while sharing a very personal story and being very embarrassed that she cried. But she doesn’t know that’s the moment where she got the job because I knew that it was already in her heart. And whenever it moves you in your heart, you’re going to protect it, you’re going to fight for it. And from that moment on we had a partner.

She was a sister in every sense of the word. My husband and I, our production company produced the movie, and we went through a lot of directors. There are no words to describe the fight: the directors who said that they wanted to do it, but then never read it. The directors who said no from the very beginning. The directors who just ... I mean, I would say most of them just disappeared. And I have to say, I was in shock because I think it’s a kickass project. I thought that there would be flocks of people. But I have now come to understand that Blackness does scare people.

Atim: I think there are also people who are scared to defend Blackness. And Gina was never ever afraid to do that. And actually went above and beyond to fight for the Blackest-Black film that we could make. Which is not easy because there are lots of people who would want to be able to do that but [lack the] fight or the tenacity to keep on pushing through all of the barriers and obstacles that are inevitably going to come with a task like that.

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What was your experience like filming in South Africa? Thuso, I understand it was near where you grew up?

Mbedu: Yeah! We spent the first two weeks in KwaZulu-Natal, which is my home province. The locations are absolutely bananas. We had elephants, we had giraffes. ... It was an amazing experience. The sun was not on our side, the wind was not on our side. But it made the experience that much more interesting.

Davis: There’s no replicating Africa. There is no soundstage in Hollywood or anywhere else in the world that could replicate that. I went on safari five times in KwaZulu-Natal. And I remember [thinking], “We’re not going to see one animal,” and suddenly we were surrounded by maybe 25 elephants. I cannot tell you how much it humbles you to God’s majesty. It was another character. Africa is a character and a beautiful one.

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Lynch: We were taking the energy of the motherland into us as people, but also into these characters. We were able to access an ancestral energy that really shines in this movie. To look around set and see this beautiful cast who are all Black just existing together barefoot, there’s something about that experience that I don’t know if I can ever compare to anything else. It would have been a really different experience to walk around a set in a studio and then walk onto lino[leum] or concrete.

Warriors stare each other down
Lashana Lynch stars in “The Woman King.”
(Sony Pictures)
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How did it feel to be part of a big historical action epic?

Atim: The definition of the word “big” is so interesting because there’s big in terms of budget and production value and then there’s the other layer of that word, the depth of what this film means, represents, entailed, required from us. I think this film is big beyond the standard definition of the word. It’s another kind of big that’s almost undefinable.

Lynch: There was a different level of dedication that was required in order to really throw ourselves in to the point where we don’t recognize ourselves. And it was really incredible to look around the set and see this group of women whose bodies were capable of something we couldn’t quite understand. I’ve watched the film and still do not believe that we did that.

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The Dora Milaje of Marvel’s “Black Panther” were modeled after the Agojie. Was there a feeling that movie helped this one get made?

A warrior holding a spear
Shelia Atim stars in “The Woman King.”
(Sony Pictures)

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Atim: From a commercial perspective, what “Black Panther” did was show that Black people onscreen en masse sells. And I think what’s beautiful about “The Woman King” being able to coexist in a world with films like “Black Panther” is that we have the fictional superhero fantastical version and then we have the real historical version as well ... . It’s important for us to be able to do that as Black creatives, to not just go, “Oh, you had your moment for the next couple of decades,” but to be able to say, “Hey, we’ve also got this thing, which is kind of linked, but it’s actually this other different thing.” That is what it means to take up space and to sit in our authenticity, our complexity, autonomously.

Davis: Without “Black Panther,” there could not have been a “Woman King” because there’s the work and then there’s the business of Hollywood and it’s a machine that feeds on money. And so when you have a Black film that makes money, then you can come in the room and say, “Wait a minute, I want to make a movie about [something related],” then you have their ear. But if all anybody wants to talk about is “Black Panther,” then all you set the stage for is comparison. And what I want to emphasize is that this movie stands on its own. We stand on our own.

A woman rests a sword on her shoulder
Thuso Mbedu stars in “The Woman King.”
(Sony Pictures)
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Can you talk about the balance the film strikes between displaying trauma and its message of empowerment?

Atim: There is trauma in the world. That is very much the reality of all of our existence. For me, I think it’s important that if a story is engaging in different types of trauma — and there are lots of different types in this story — that there is nuance there. I don’t believe it’s about avoiding trauma because I don’t think that’s possible and I don’t think that’s real. But if you’re going to go there, there has to be some real consideration about how you’re doing it, what you’re saying, what you’re choosing to show and why ... .It’s also great to see things that are aspirational, but it can’t always be that, with rose-tinted glasses. That’s not life.

Davis: We are not in the business of creating images, we are in the business of creating human beings. So when people say they’re tired of seeing trauma, then that means you have restricted our humanity completely. You have rendered us completely unable to tell a story. And then what’s left? Then we cease to be artists, and that’s traumatizing.

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What was it like getting to be part of such a huge Black woman-led ensemble?

Lynch: Glorious. Glorious and rare.

Davis: These sisters, they get me. So I don’t feel like I have to go to bed and go, “Oh, did they think that I was hostile? Did I not smile enough? What did I do with my hair, did they understand that?” There’s none of that. And so then you could just get on to the business of being you. And oh my God, does that give you so much levity.

Atim: It’s crazy. How often have my “superiors” been akin to my cousins, aunties, mom? It’s always been a separation for me in my life. Like, other Black women exist in my private life and then when I go to work, very few people look like me. And to be able to step into a space where I knew that the people who were leading the charge also had an added understanding of who I might be as a Black woman, to have a shorthand with them, there’s a really healing aspect that comes in there.

Lynch: With this, there’s a different level of expectation that I have for myself and for the industry that comes off the back of being a part of this cast and having a Black filmmaker. I don’t feel like this can never happen again, I feel like this must happen again. It’s essential that we round up the troops and make sure it happens. And as an actor, I have a responsibility to make sure that it does. This has to be the new normal now.

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