Seeing the stars of “The Woman King,“ dressed in sleek clothing, all made up and smiling, belies the tooth-and-nail fight it took to get to this point.
The historical epic inspired by the true story of an all-female African army struggled for survival, despite Viola Davis’ involvement as both star and producer.
“When you get a film and the players are players that have never been seen before – and in a genre like this – it’s a fight” to get made, says Davis, speaking by video from the Toronto Film Festival, where the movie directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”) made its debut. “A day-to-day fight. Literally, I was Nanisca.”
But let’s back up. “The Woman King” (in theaters Friday), set in the Dahomey kingdom of western Africa in 1823, tells the story of the Agojie, a military regiment of women soldiers protecting its people from threats of invasion. At the heart of the epic is Nanisca (Viola Davis), the skilled warrior general with the ear of King Ghezo (John Boyega), with her right-hand soldiers Amenza (Sheila Atim) and Izogie (Lashana Lynch) – and young recruit Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) – next to her in battle.
The women of “The Woman King” underwent months of physical and mental preparation to get into fighting shape. Davis, 57, bulked up to play the hardened leader; Mbedu, 31, needed to look the part of a fresh-faced rookie climbing the ranks.
“Let me tell you something about training. It’s hard,” says Davis, who jokes, “You know that my heart rate can’t be the same as Thuso’s. You can’t put my heart rate up like that!”
Transforming into the fighters of the Agojie, who were the inspiration for the fictional Dora Milaje in Marvel’s “Black Panther,” took hours of martial arts and spear training with stunt coordinator Danny Hernandez, on top of 90 minutes of daily weight training with trainer Gabriela Mclain. (“Fighting is not magic. It is skill,” says Davis’ character, Nanisca.)
“It’s not, ‘Oh, we’re just inserting action here to make the movie look cool,'” says Mbedu (“The Underground Railroad”). “This is what they did. They ran through thorns, they were pelted with rocks, they did obstacle courses, they jumped from high platforms to the ground and weren’t allowed to show pain in any way. And so when we were experiencing the pain of the process … I had to remind myself that this is nothing compared to what my character would have gone through (in real life).”
Forget killing a man with your bare hands – try killing a man with your bare nails. Lynch’s Izogie does just that; the real Agojie were about using all their skills in combat.
Training gave Lynch (“No Time to Die”) a “foundation that we needed to really to make sure these characters were in the right place so we were representing the Agojie women in the right way, ” she says, and so that they were “ready to withstand the 3 a.m. night shoots for stunts.”
“We really were conditioning ourselves holistically to be able to take on these roles and to withstand a five-month shoot in very intense conditions” in South Africa, says Atim (“Bruised”).
Becoming physically and emotionally ready for the onscreen warring was just part of the battle.
Davis was pitched the idea for the film in 2015 by Maria Bello, one of the movie’s producers, in a speech she made presenting Davis with an award at the National Women’s History Museum in Los Angeles. The process from that moment to the final version viewers will see “looks like something that does not make this business attractive,” Davis says.
“Everything in between is not pretty. It really isn’t,” she says. “You literally have to have the spirit of an artistic warrior when you are fighting for material.”
Prince-Bythewood wrote Boyega (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”) a letter as a “call to action” to lure him into the movie, and a message from Davis sweetened the deal.
“To get any type of message from Viola Davis is going to send you to wherever she’s asking you to go,” says Boyega, adding that “seeing that this story was very nuanced and very delicate” and “wasn’t trying to highlight these stereotypical, sound bite, clickbait narratives that normally films try to go for, I just felt very connected.”
It was a photo of Davis’ muscular arms that sold Lynch on the film.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, the level of work, the physical work is going to be on 100 for this, and I cannot wait,'” Lynch says.
Another level of difficulty was nailing the West African accents. “Accents are intimidating in general, because you will never get it right for whoever is the person that the accent belongs to, but I felt safe enough” to explore the nuances, Mbedu says.
One of the only books known to the film’s creators specifically about the Agojie, 1998’s”Amazons of Black Sparta,” became a reference guide for Davis, in spite of its racism and misogynoir.
“There’s a lot of elements in the book that quite honestly were offensive, referring to the women as bestial, ugly, masculine,” Davis says. The film flips those descriptions, instead portraying its characters as beautiful, compelling and, most importantly, human.
It was crucial to depict the totality of Black women, including vulnerability and moments of support that go beyond times of pain or hardship.
“As a Black woman representing our ancestors, it’s important to see that we’ve always had this” type of sisterhood, Lynch says. “This kind of love has existed in our line since the beginning of time.”
The joy is clear in the laughter, hair braiding and dancing that fill the palace where the Agojie reside.
That drumbeat of joy extended to real life: Davis and Boyega share a story of a rainy day on the set that halted filming on an important scene with the full cast.
The South African drummers and extras on set “were like, ‘This is our country, we’re going to sing a song to the rain, and we’re going to have the rain stop so we can start filming.’ … You hear the drums going, all the South Africans came out and they started singing this amazing song,” Boyega says.
“They almost sang it to the sky,” Davis says. “Eventually, it did stop raining. … It was a moment that defied any sort of earthly explanation. It was something that came from the depth of their soul. For me, it defines Blackness, it defines Africanness, and it defines who we are as people.”