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How The Woman King confronts Africa’s role in the slave trade, explained by director Gina Prince-Bythewood


In a cinematic landscape of reboots and sequels, it’s fairly staggering that Gina Prince-Bythewood got to make a historical epic about Black, all-women warriors in 1800s Africa.

Just as striking is the historical research that went into making her film, The Woman King. As Prince-Bythewood explains, the filmmakers couldn’t look away from the Kingdom of Dahomey’s role in the Atlantic slave trade.

The Woman King raked in $19 million at the box office this weekend, putting viewers on the front lines of a real-life struggle for freedom that took place in what is present-day Benin. Set in 1823, the movie follows an all-female tribe of warriors called the Agojie, also known as Dahomey Amazons, who defended their kingdom against French colonizers and enemy African tribes.

Viola Davis stars as the group’s general, Nanisca, who works to convince the young king, Ghezo, to end the Kingdom’s role in the slave trade. The film was shot in South Africa, from a screenplay by Dana Stevens, and leans heavily on research conducted into the costumes, weapons, architecture, and culture of the Dahomey.

The reaction online has been mostly positive, with viewers hailing an action film that highlights the strength and ferocity of the Black women warriors. Detractors criticized the film for not delving deeply enough into Dahomey’s legacy of building its wealth by capturing and selling people in the slave trade, with some on social media even calling for a boycott of the movie.

On Today, Explained Vox’s daily news explainer podcast host Noel King spoke to director Gina Prince-Bythewood about the challenges of getting this movie made, and of wrestling with the historical complexity of the Dahomey and its women warriors.

Below is an excerpt of the conversation, edited for length and clarity. There’s much more in the full podcast, so listen to Today, Explained wherever you get podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


Noel King

This is an action movie starring Black women, set two centuries ago, where men are barely onscreen. What were the biggest challenges in getting a movie like this made?

Gina Prince-Bythewood

You know, Hollywood is a fascinating place, in that people speak on wanting original stories, yet they continually fall back on what’s familiar because what’s familiar is safe. There’s a proven track record to that. So when you come out with original content — which, me as an audience, that’s what I get excited about — it’s a harder sell. It’s certainly a harder sell when it’s a movie, a historical epic, which is absolutely a genre that’s been dominated by male stories and male heroes and male protagonists and villains. And certainly we’ve never seen this with Black women before.

Noel King

And so what was your attitude going into the room with people who you knew might be skeptics?

Gina Prince-Bythewood

I would like to say my enthusiasm and passion for this, when I read the script, I saw the movie. And I feel like I’m my first audience and the movie in my head was exactly the type of movie I would die to see. And so it was bringing that passion into the room. But not only the passion, but the swagger of, “Everything I’m telling you I want this film to be, I can do because my body of work has shown you that I can do that.” And certainly having The Old Guard on my resume at that point was absolutely helpful in their belief that, yes, she could do the action and do these big set pieces well. People discount what passion can do. When you go into a room, you’re convincing somebody to give you millions of dollars. They have to be inspired and excited by your vision. And so that’s really what I came in with.

Noel King

This is a movie that is based on real historical events and a real historical kingdom, which, of course, makes things more complicated. When you approached this movie, did you have some amount of trepidation about how you would make the history come alive and how you would deal with some of the historical challenges?

Gina Prince-Bythewood

It wasn’t intimidation, I think, because historical epics are some of my favorite films. You know, Braveheart, I’ve watched it a hundred times. I loved that film. Last of the Mohicans. Gladiator. These films that are set in a true time in history, and yet there is some inventiveness in terms of the characters and your ability to tell personal stories within that. So I knew going in the balance that I wanted to have, and the confidence in that and the excitement and being able to tell the story of this kingdom, like that’s an extra thing to know that these women were real, that this David and Goliath battle that they had was real, and the stakes were real, and the reasons for it were real, that this kingdom was real, that the politics and gender politics were real. I just kept getting more excited as I got deeper into the research because I saw more truth and more authenticity that I could pour into the story.

Noel King

A lot of the movies that you seem to admire, those movies center men. They always have, right?

Gina Prince-Bythewood

Yes.

Noel King

And this is one where you just were not doing that. Viola Davis is not just the star, she’s the beating heart of the movie. The rest of the main cast are all women. Did you know you were making something that would be game-changing if it was done right?

Gina Prince-Bythewood

I guess I looked at it as, I knew we were doing something that hadn’t been done before. That was exciting as an artist to be able to do that. And I knew because of that, and who was fronting this movie, who were the heroes in this movie, I feel like I had more pressure and I’m saying self-imposed pressure on getting it right. I needed people to be able to go to this movie and just be enthralled by these warriors. When I started watching it as we were cutting it together, the smiles I would find myself doing when I’m just looking up on the screen and seeing these characters. It’s like, “Oh, we did this and I get to watch this anytime I want. I get to turn on our editing monitors and watch these warriors, these Black women being heroes.” And that was really exciting.

Noel King

I want to ask you about the history here, because some of this is difficult. There was a kingdom of Dahomey. And one of the ways in which this kingdom became very wealthy was that they did capture their enemies and sell them to European slave traders. A lot of this was going on in West Africa at the time. And that is a very difficult thing for a filmmaker, I would imagine, because your heroes are part of a kingdom that is doing this thing that is appalling and historically one of the most terrible things that has ever happened. How did you wrestle with, my good women are part of a kingdom that is doing this awful thing?

Gina Prince-Bythewood

It was the knowledge that at the time that we’re setting this, that the kingdom was at a crossroads — and a legit crossroads — of half of this kingdom and its people wanting to abolish being a part of the trade and the other half wanting to keep it because it gave them their wealth. And being able to use these women as that voice of wanting to change. And so being able to deal with, yes, they did this, but there was a fight and a young king, Ghezo, was in the middle of this, trying to decide which way to go and ultimately deciding to go against it, knowing that that could affect his reign, which, you know, for me personally, I find heroic in that he potentially gave up his power to do the right thing.

Noel King

You’re referring to a theme throughout the movie. But there’s one very vivid scene in which Viola Davis, who plays the general Nanisca, tries to convince the king, played by John Boyega, to give up the slave trade and instead make money off of the production of palm oil, which is something that the Kingdom of Dahomey has a lot of. And he says, “Slave trading is why we prosper.” And she says, “But at what price?” Historically, did that conversation happen?

Gina Prince-Bythewood

Oh, absolutely. They had the potential and they ultimately did go to palm oil production as their main source of income. Did it happen specifically with Nanisca? Nanisca’s an amalgamation of a number of different people, but that is the direction that they ultimately went to. This was the story. And there were moments where some felt it would have been easier to not focus on that and make it easy. And I wasn’t going to do that. We had to be truthful.

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