“The Woman King”: Viola Davis Rules on Screen and At the Box Office
By Paula Schwartz
In “The Woman King,” Viola Davis plays the ferocious leader of the Agojie, an all-female warrior group who defended the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. In the film, they are portrayed as outcasts and disenfranchised from the tribe, swearing off marriage and motherhood to focus on rigid military demands.
Despite rave reviews where the film premiered in Toronto, much of the pre-opening online chatter focused on whether moviegoers were rushing to see an all-female historical epic, particularly dark-skinned black women. The gloomy online prognoses seemed anti-feminist, even worse. They were wrong too.
Viola Davis and her husband and co-producer, Julius Tennon, should be opening the champagne right now. “The Woman King” ruled the box office with a $19 million debut. The New York Times called the film a “surprises $19 million” opening. Even Sony estimated a modest $12 million opening. The film cost $50 million, excluding marketing costs. It’s thin compared to many male-centric action thrillers. (Paramount’s “Top Gun: Maverick” cost $170 million, and while the two films couldn’t be more opposites, it gives you an idea of how much an action movie with a big star can cost.)
Both the intimate, emotional relationships between the women and the beautifully choreographed fight scenes are expertly directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. I’ve been a longtime fan of this director, from ‘Love & Basketball’ to ‘Beyond the Lights’ and more recently ‘The Old Guard’, which proved he knows how to pull off an exciting fight scene. But be prepared. The battle scenes in “The Woman King” are bloody and gruesome, and sometimes I watched with fingers covering my face.
I attended the SAG screening of “The Woman King” a few days before the film was released on September 16th. After watching the film, I am not surprised by the early success of the film. The movie is fantastic, an action-adventure rollercoaster that never lets up. From the opening scene, when Viola Davis as General Nanisca raises her sword and literally leaps into battle, you will be hooked. I loved the movie, the female warriors and their stories of unwavering resistance to injustice that makes you root for and fear them. There is a sense of empowerment that women can’t help but feel when they see such strong women on screen. This is also a rarity.
But back to Viola Davis, At 56 when he shot the movie, he’s fit, kicking, and totally believable. It’s not shocking, but a pleasant exploration of another side of his many talents (did we mention he also has a memoir on the New York Times bestseller list?)
Viola Davis is tirelessly promoting the film. Along with the director and the cast, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Sucho Mbedu and Lashana Lynch participated in the post-screening Q&A. Here are the highlights:
Gina Prince-Bythewood on the pre-production process and training the actors
“This is my favorite part of the process; he builds characters with actors, especially incredible actors like this. Building relationships. Still, I knew the best bonding would be exercise. The intense training, I knew would be part of the trial process, character building, and then brotherhood building. .. We keep saying it’s training, but it was six days a week, twice a day, five hours a day, to fully embody these characters, fight their own battles, do their own stunts. But I love it because you saw them change. If you train this deeply, you will change the way you think. It changes self-expression. It changes the way you walk, the way you think about yourself, and the way they think about each other.
And to see them encourage each other to be competitive with each other, which is what I love about healthy competition, to promote that, to encourage that. But also in the rehearsal process, putting different people together and having deep conversations. The backstory I asked them to share with me, the backstory of each of them, I want to make that movie. It was so deep and so good.”
John Boyega, who plays the haughty reigning king, on what it’s like to receive an email from Viola Davis about playing the role:
“At first I thought it was a joke. Then I got the following email from Gina and a whole bag of assistants. I said yes, this is the real VD.
This is the real situation. But it felt like a call to action. I felt like Gina had been watching me for a while, and I secretly found Gina at her work a while back, and she spoke to me like The Man. I mean, these conversations are usually through agents, and it’s like a corporate flavor. But Gina is almost like we’ve known each other before when she talks about how I felt at that time and in that moment. And from then on, I was just like, yeah, sure, I’m going to go on set… and (I’m doing that).
On meeting Viola Davis as producer and star and on the business and creative side:
“You know what? Okay, it’s because I want to be honest, so it feels right. It feels like agency, which means I own my own voice. I’m taking back my power. It’s autonomy. It feels fantastic. Okay. It feels like that. But at the same time it’s also incredibly scary. The thing is, when you’re doing something you’ve never done before, it’s exciting, right? But it’s also scary because it’s never been done before. Because you’re injecting something into the world that you’re just praying people are ready for. . And you just don’t, listen, I know it’s great. I do. I know it, look it up.
That was my life in every way and then you have to put it out into the world and hope that people get it and it means something to you. I refuse to believe that I am bringing it into a world that resists it. Because what it tells me, I can’t go there. These are dark-skinned, black women. You know what, these are incredible actors who can drive a global box office. Black women, black men, white women, white men, everybody. There is something for you in this movie because it is human. Go see the movie, then watch the movie, and then ask that question again.”