As The Woman King rolls into theaters today, both the film’s cast and its director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, are excitedly anticipating wide audience response to the action, drama, and majesty of the story centered on Dahomey’s Agojie warriors.
It’s a real-life legacy that most audiences frankly aren’t familiar with. The director says telling this hidden history, lost to most American audiences, peels back the curtain of mystery about where we came from and serves as a counter to the lessons we’ve been given on where our story began.
“It really started with this story I wanted to tell, which is about these incredible women that history knows nothing about. So much of what we learned about our history in America is that it began with enslavement, and that’s just not the truth,” Prince-Bythewood tells ESSENCE. “There’s an incredible continent – not that far away – that has incredible cultures. It’s where we came from. It’s where our ancestors came from. So I wanted to tell that story.”
The story of the Agojie’s fierce sisterhood and strong bond comes alive on screen, a translation of the close bond Prince-Bythewood and the cast formed with each other during preparation and filming this project.
“I feel that as the director, it’s my job to foster relationships that are then going to show up on screen,” she says. “So many of us have never had an opportunity to tell a story like this. The responsibility we felt, the connection that so many of these actors felt directly to our ancestors, the desire to get it right, we all shared that, and the work ethic.”
That work ethic saw the cast – and Prince-Bythewood, who joined in out of solidarity – completing intense physical training to get in shape to complete their own stunts and fight choreography for the film.
“That bonded everyone because it was so hard,” the director recalls. “They fed each other, pushed each other, they were competitive in the best way and pulled each other through, and it’s beautiful that that could show up onscreen. ”
“It really all started with Viola [Davis]. All of them wanted to tell this story, they wanted to play these incredible characters, but they wanted to play with Viola.”
Davis, the film’s lead who also co-produced the film through her production company JuVee, mentioned during ESSENCE’s roundtable discussion with the cast, she wasn’t entirely convinced that The Woman King would actually come to pass when the prospect of the film came along. For Prince-Bythewood, the fact that the film is actually hitting theaters today is nothing short of miraculous.
“Every time I watch the movie, the word ‘miracle’ pops into my head,” she says. “It is a miracle that this film is in existence, that it’s about to be put into the world. I’m just excited for others to see it because I know how it makes me feel.”
“I know if I had nothing to do with it how I would feel to finally be able to go into the theater and see a story like this and see myself reflected like this. It’s everything, and I’m just excited.”
Viewers on their way to the theaters this evening should also know to stick around after the initial set of credits. There is a brief, yet impactful mid-credit stinger that speaks calls back to the film’s end, yet also encompasses its message in a poignant manner. For Prince-Bythewood, it was an important addition that tied our past and our present together in a subtle way.
“As a filmmaker, you have a vision. I knew what this film was, but I also knew what it meant for me, as a Black woman. And that is about ‘Say Her Name,'” she reveals. “It’s about honoring the Black women who have been in the struggle, who have died nameless, and it ends with a specific name that embodies our struggle of being invisible, of being unprotected. So, it was a callout in honor of us.”
The Woman King is now in theaters.