Director Gina Prince-Bythewood has a long history of deconstructing the way Black femininity is portrayed on screen — and her latest film is no exception.
It’s fitting that the first image I see when Gina Prince-Bythewood signs on for our video call is a photo of herself as a little girl. She’s running a few minutes behind from her last interview, so she doesn’t quite have her camera set up when we first meet, virtually, face to face.
I asked her the typical Zoom starter question: Are we doing video or no? To which she responded, “Well, you can see me as a little girl or…” before we both burst into chuckles. Instead of finishing that sentence, she materialized on the screen, apologizing for her tardiness.
What appears is the filmmaker smiling ear to ear, wearing a graphic tee and black blazer inside an office adorned with countless framed personal and celebrity photos of Black people. But most noticeably, Black women and girls.
This means so much when you consider that it’s a testament to the work that Prince-Bythewood has been doing throughout her entire three-decade career. There is no doubt: She loves seeing Black women’s images immortalized.
That’s evident in all her films, including “Love & Basketball,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” “Beyond the Lights” and “The Old Guard.” And she doesn’t dance around that; it’s intentional. In fact, throughout much of our conversation, she sinks into the familiar comfort of saying “us” a lot. As in, she does this for us.
Really, as Prince-Bythewood specifies, her work is intertwined with her larger desire to deconstruct the way Black femininity is viewed and portrayed on screen. “I think it’s about reframing what we think of when we say female,” she said. “Definitely started with ‘Love & Basketball’ and that being so autobiographical.”
That 2000 romance centers on a young Black woman (Sanaa Lathan) whose love for basketball is just as profound as her love for the guy next door (Omar Epps). Prince-Bythewood also played ball in school and is married to filmmaker Reggie Rock-Bythewood.
“Knowing that I grew up being told that there was something wrong with me because I loved sports and didn’t want to wear dresses — still don’t love wearing dresses,” Prince-Bythewood continued, “then really digging into those themes with ‘Beyond the Lights’ and the hypersexuality of what we’re told we’re supposed to be in our music. Then to get to ‘The Old Guard’ and then ‘The Woman King’ — these women are incredible warriors.”
It’s true. The fierce characters of “The Woman King” are unlike any women we’ve seen on film before. Well, since the Dora Milaje in 2018’s “The Black Panther,” who were actually inspired by the women portrayed in Prince-Bythewood’s film. But in “The Woman King,” they’re not just a part of the story. They are the story.
Bold, Black, muscular, beautiful, vulnerable and utterly unfuckwithable. They are the real-life Dahomey Amazons, the all-female military regiment that guarded what is now present-day Benin for several centuries until the early 1900s.
Prince-Bythewood and her phenomenal cast and crew — including actors Viola Davis (who’s also a producer), Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim — give these women the reverence they deserve on the big screen. They’re multidimensional and complex, strong AF and illuminated in all their glory through the brilliant work of cinematographer Polly Morgan.
“I wanted to celebrate the athletic body and their frame and the way that they see the world,” Prince-Bythewood said. “Yet that doesn’t take away from them as women, their humanity, the vulnerability, which is an incredible strength in itself.”
She added: “Given so many women are not taught to tap into that innate warrior that we have — we’re always told to tamp it down, to be quieter, to be smaller. Whereas me as an athlete growing up, I was supposed to be big. I want to give that to us.”
And she has. But “The Woman King,” as the filmmaker alluded, is not just about showing the glistening, almost superhuman muscles of Black female protectors of an African kingdom. There’s also a rich story that revolves around their dreams, fears and the politics of a homeland that is shifting away from their control due to intercontinental wars and the Atlantic slave trade.
At the heart of the film, though, are the intimate relationships among the women. Some of them are competitive, like young Nawi (Mbedu) and some of her fellow recruits. Others are nurturing, like Lynch’s veteran warrior, or self-determined, like Davis’ titular character, General Nanisca. There is also an unexpected connection between a mother and her daughter.
“The phrase immediately came to mind: intimately epic,” Prince-Bythewood said, reflecting on when she first read the script and grasped its many layers. She wanted to “start with those relationships. Because at the end of the day, all the bigness is great and beautiful. But it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t care about the characters.”
That means making even the elaborate battle scenes — of which there are plenty — come across as purposefully and viscerally as the quieter moments when the women are exchanging personal stories or dancing in celebration or as an embrace of their authority. This isn’t a film that solely rests in a blockbuster action space (not like there’s anything wrong with that).
Rather, “The Woman King” thrives on both its personal dimensions and extravagant cinematic vitality. It shows a filmmaker at the top of her game and the many women she’s teamed with who eagerly pushed themselves to their highest potential throughout this tight, 63-day shoot in South Africa.
“I love my cast so much,” Prince-Bythewood said with a big smile.
That includes John Boyega, whose role as King Ghezo (based, like Nawi, upon a real person) is small but significant. Essentially, he’s often there to assert his ruling power over Dahomey (and dominance over his many wives), yet extend his profound admiration for the women he put in charge of defending his kingdom.
When Prince-Bythewood met with Boyega for the role, she was struck by his commitment to elevating the women among him. “He is used to lead roles and he literally said, ‘I want to use my power to help you guys get this made,’” she recalled. “‘I want to be there to support you.’ That never happens.”
This feeling of support has reverberated across the production. “Oftentimes you finish the scene and people go back to the trailers,” Prince-Bythewood added. “A lot of people didn’t leave set on this one. They wanted to watch each other work.”
Honestly, who could blame them? The set itself, by production designer Akin McKenzie, is absolutely stunning and immediately immerses the audience, as well as the cast, in the story.
“I wanted to give the actors a 360-world to play in,” the director said. “I could see the 1800s. I don’t want you to look up and see a car or a plane overhead. I want you to be in there with your feet in that red earth and it’d be real.”
“Akin did such incredible work and it was amazing to be inside that set because the outside world just kind of fell off.”
To call “The Woman King” gargantuan would almost be to understate it. It’s a revelation, and greater than anything Prince-Bythewood has ever done before. But it was an opportunity that she had been preparing for for a long while.
“I would say in the last 10 years I’ve had a desire to do a big movie like this for us,” she said. “‘Braveheart’ is one of my favorite movies. We haven’t gotten something like that.”
As the filmmaker has stated in several interviews in the past, she had her sights set on a story about Haitian General Toussaint Louverture for years. One of her two sons also shares his name.
“[The Louverture movie] was a story that had been percolating in my head that I wanted to do,” Prince-Bythewood said. “I also had a desire to play in the bigger sandbox, certainly what ‘Old Guard’ allowed me to do. Once you’re there, you just want to keep going bigger.”
“The Woman King” gave her the opportunity to be in that sandbox “in a way that we’ve never had the opportunity to do — except for ‘Black Panther,’ of course,” she continued. “I just felt like all my work up until this point led me to this moment where I felt like I knew how to do this film in the right way.”
Prince-Bythewood actually felt this way five years ago when she first came across the project, with Davis already attached, the same way many of us hear about upcoming films: through an article online.
And she felt a kind of way that she wasn’t approached about it back then. “I literally said to myself, ‘Why didn’t they come to me?’” she recalled.
Then they did, but there was no script. When she asked them to come back to her when they had one — what ended up being Mario Bello and Dana Stevens’ gorgeous narrative — it was just a year and a half ago, when Prince-Bythewood had decided to take a breather after “The Old Guard.”
But after reading the script, the filmmaker, as ready as ever, knew she had to seize the opportunity. “It was an absolute,” she said. “‘I have to do this movie.’ Not a ‘I want to.’ I have to.”
She remembered her promise to take time off, though, and decided to go through another important channel in her decision-making process. “I sent the script to my husband, and he read it immediately,” the director said. “I still have the texts where he said, ‘This is your next movie.’ That was everything because I needed their support to go on this journey.”
That began with Prince-Bythewood poring over “stacks” of books, journals and documentaries to delve into the lives of the Dahomey Amazons, and hiring consultants to help authenticate the film. What she found, unsurprisingly, was that a lot of material was written about the women with little respect for their humanity.
“So much of the things written about the Dahomey and these women — whether it be the books or articles — were by the complete Western gaze and eye,” Prince-Bythewood said, “and written by people who had an absolute incentive to dehumanize us, make us seem like savages.”
As a result, Prince-Bythewood has made her opus. Even she looks back on it and says, “The film is what I intended.”
That continued determination to illuminate Black female humanity paid off in a way that only a female director, specifically a Black woman, could ensure. She infuses the film with as much respect and love that she has for herself and other Black women — packed with all their complexities, joy, camaraderie, heartache, ferocity and self-adoration.
“I hope that my work is starting to do that,” Prince-Bythewood said, “that women can look up on screen and see themselves reflected in a way that’s inspiring to them.”
“The Woman King” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and will be released in theaters on Sept. 16.
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