On September 16, audiences will witness the story of the Agojie, the all-female warrior unit who protected the African kingdom of Dahomey from its enemies in the 19th century. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, Adrienne Warren, and Thuso Mbedu, The Woman King not only uncovers and reframes a significant chapter in West African history. It renews a sense of pride and purpose for Black women of all walks of life across the diaspora.
“Sometimes you’re in a project that’s bigger than you,” says Davis, who covers the September digital cover of ESSENCE alongside her cast mates. “You’re not thinking about box office. You’re not thinking about success. You’re thinking about transcendence.”
The film follows General Nanisca, played by Davis, as she trains the next generation of recruits with the blessing of King Ghezo, played by John Boyega. The concept was first presented to Davis in 2015, but the idea that a project like this could actually happen took years for the Academy Award winner to grasp.
“The important part of this story is –I’m saying this now because it’s been almost eight years — I would say at the time it didn’t hit me. Not the story. The story hit me. The possibility of the story seeing light did not hit me,” Davis shares. “I think that’s important to say, because we are sort of thrust into this business. We’re sort of thrust in the world too, but that’s a whole different conversation. But we’re thrust in the business automatically assuming that something is not going to happen if it’s never been done before. There’s not going to be any support, no one’s going to want to do it, no studio’s going to give it the green light vote, and who would want to see me like that? And so I personally dropped it in my mind until Kathy Schulman came with the script by Dana Stevens and I was like, ‘Oh, okay.'”
Getting greenlit by studios was only one part of the battle in bringing this film to fruition. Portraying the warriors in this historical epic drama required an immense amount of physical training and mental stamina to execute, which the actresses spoke about in great detail during our cover story roundtable discussion. Each of them relaying their ability to hold on to the understanding that what they would accomplish in the end was bigger than any one of them.
Gina Prince-Bythewood on the cast committing to do their own stunts.
“It was imperative because for me the best action is personal and it’s character driven and it’s story driven and it’s very hard to do that when you’re dealing with doubles. You all looked me in the eye and said that you would do everything it took, even those who haven’t done it before. It’s one thing to say that, it’s another thing to really do what you guys did. I don’t think anyone can ever really say how hard you guys worked.”
Viola Davis on being seen a Black actress.
“There are no words to describe the journey, the sweat, the blood the war, that is being a Black artist and being a Black female artist. If people understood what goes on in the room, what goes on in the studio, what goes on in a heart, what freaking dies in us at times.
“When they see the carnage of all the Black actors who were out there, even during the Sydney Poitier years, that couldn’t even have an agent, because it was nothing out there for them. If they see the blood, sweat and tears of what it took, not just for this movie, just what our journey is. Then they would be on board. They would be on board because they would understand the absolute importance of it. And whatever little jealousies, which is very human because that’s what it is, it’s jealousy. It’s envy. It’s I want to be there. It’s that basic human instinct to take someone down because I need to be better than you in order to feel some other importance. That is secondary to elevating the ultimate goal, which is us being seen.”
Lashana Lynch on the lasting impact The Woman King will have on her life.
“I feel like I’ll always have a little bit of whatever spirit was conjured up for the shoot within us and I don’t even know what it is. I feel like I’ve met this energy in a way and now I don’t know what to do with it. Because will I get the chance to even exercise it again? What does it mean? How do I talk to it? How do I use it? But genuinely I’m just really grateful that all of my experiences and all of the no’s and all of the complications and all of the “We’re going with a white girl, a lighter girl, a short girl, a more experienced girl–” we’ll go with all of those girls because they, aesthetically, make more sense than the tall, Black, curvy, short-haired, dark skin girl from London who doesn’t dot her i’s and cross her t’s all the time, and who has opinions [got me here]. I cannot comprehend how this is going to reverberate throughout our lives. Let alone throughout the world. The world is one thing, but in our lives there’s something that we can have forever. And I’m so excited to see what that collective experience is going to be.”
Thuso Mbedu on Gina Prince-Bythewood and Viola Davis believing in her.
“My biggest takeaway is that I really am stronger than I think or believe or allow myself to be. And that there is a greatness that you saw that I have not been allowed to see in myself that I need to take in. I thank you for seeing me. Because even now I don’t think I see myself.”
Sheila Atim on working with Black women across the diaspora.
“I personally felt so enriched by being able to work with people who weren’t Black British or even who were Black British but have a different heritage from me, for us to all be in the same place. I learned from everyone and I hope that people learned from me as well. I think that’s a huge part, what we are able to do for people outside of ourselves. And there’s also what we are able to do to each other, first and foremost, before we then present what we created.”
Adrienne Warren on the sisterhood that was birthed out of this film.
“Our togetherness is resistance. We are so much stronger together. I didn’t know I had sisters in places. That’s how it felt being on this set. My sisters have multiplied. And the beauty in that, and the beauty in what we have learned from each other because of our individual lived experiences, and the beauty that we present when we come together, we present what the world has never seen before. They love, they meaning the system, meaning everything else out there, loves to divide us, because if you divide us, then you can conquer us. Try to penetrate us. You won’t because we have been through so much, and because in each and every way, we’re not superheroes, we’re actually warriors. We’re Black women.”
The ESSENCE x The Woman King Roundtable conversation will air on September 12.
Photographed by: Lelanie Foster, @lelanief
Styled by: Corey Stokes, @coreytstokes
Adrienne Hair: Tym Wallace using RED by Kiss Edge Fixer Hair Wax Stick at Mastermind Management Group, @tymwallacehair
Adrienne Makeup: Rebekah Aladdin at PR Collective, @rebekahaladdin
Gina Hair: Tiffany Daughtery at Celestine Agency
Gina Makeup: Leibi Carias at Celestine Agency
Lashana Hair: Cynthia Alvarez at The Wall Group, @cynthiaglam
Lashana Makeup: Jessica Smalls at The Wall Group, @jessicasmalls
Sheila Hair: Coree Moreno using R&Co at A-Frame Agency, @theonlycm123
Sheila Makeup: Paul Blanch using Danessa Myricks at The Wall Group, @paulyblanch
Thuso Hair: Sharif Poston using Oribe at The Visionaries Agency, @sharifposton
Thuso Makeup: Rebekah Aladdin using SET at PR Collective, @rebekahaladdin
Adrienne + Thuso Makeup Assistant: Eliven Q
Viola Hair: Jamika Wilson at Epiphany Agency, @jamikawilson
Viola Makeup: Sergio Lopez-Rivera at Cloutier Remix, @sergiowastaken
Nail Technician: Temeka Jackson at A-Frame Agency, @customtnails1
Nail Technician Assistant: Christa Cole
Set Designer: Carlos Anthony Lopez at Winston Studios, @winstonstudios
Set Design Assistants: Julia Choi and Diego Lopez
Photo Assistants: Jesse Belvin and Alexis Sotomayor
Digitech: Bo Sierigk
Styling Assistants: Sam Knoll, Nash Koshiro, Anika Desai
Production: Perris Cavalier and Taylor Brown at The Morrison Group, @themorrisongroup
Production Coordinators: Alaura Wong and Jacqueline Dufwa
Production Assistant: Mariana Garcia
Shot at: DUST Studios, @duststudiosla