It’s becoming that the primary picture I see when Gina Prince-Bythewood indicators on for our video name is a photograph of herself as a bit woman. She’s operating a couple of minutes behind from her final interview, so she doesn’t fairly have her digital camera arrange after we first meet, nearly, nose to nose.
I requested her the everyday Zoom starter query: Are we doing video or no? To which she responded, “Well, you can see me as a little girl or…” earlier than we each burst into chuckles. Instead of ending that sentence, she materialized on the display, apologizing for her tardiness.
What seems is the filmmaker smiling ear to ear, carrying a graphic tee and black blazer inside an workplace adorned with numerous framed private and movie star photographs of Black folks. But most noticeably, Black girls and women.
This means a lot when you think about that it’s a testomony to the work that Prince-Bythewood has been doing all through her whole three-decade profession. There is little question: She loves seeing Black girls’s photographs immortalized.
That’s evident in all her movies, together with “Love & Basketball,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” “Beyond the Lights” and “The Old Guard.” And she doesn’t dance round that; it’s intentional. In reality, all through a lot of our dialog, she sinks into the acquainted consolation of claiming “us” lots. As in, she does this for us.
Really, as Prince-Bythewood specifies, her work is intertwined together with her bigger want to deconstruct the way in which Black femininity is seen and portrayed on display. “I think it’s about reframing what we think of when we say female,” she mentioned. “Definitely started with ‘Love & Basketball’ and that being so autobiographical.”
That 2000 romance facilities on a younger Black girl (Sanaa Lathan) whose love for basketball is simply as profound as her love for the man subsequent door (Omar Epps). Prince-Bythewood additionally performed ball at 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 not like any girls we’ve seen on movie earlier than. Well, for the reason that Dora Milaje in 2018’s “The Black Panther,” who had been truly impressed by the ladies portrayed in Prince-Bythewood’s movie. But in “The Woman King,” they’re not simply part of the story. They are the story.
Bold, Black, muscular, lovely, susceptible and totally unfuckwithable. They are the real-life Dahomey Amazons, the all-female navy regiment that guarded what’s now present-day Benin for a number of centuries till the early 1900s.
Prince-Bythewood and her phenomenal solid and crew — together with actors Viola Davis (who’s additionally a producer), Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim — give these girls the reverence they deserve on the large display. They’re multidimensional and complicated, robust AF and illuminated in all their glory by means of the good 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 mentioned. “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,” because the filmmaker alluded, isn’t just about displaying the glistening, virtually superhuman muscle groups of Black feminine protectors of an African kingdom. There’s additionally a wealthy story that revolves round their desires, fears and the politics of a homeland that’s shifting away from their management resulting from intercontinental wars and the Atlantic slave commerce.
At the center of the movie, although, are the intimate relationships among the many girls. Some of them are aggressive, like younger Nawi (Mbedu) and a few of her fellow recruits. Others are nurturing, like Lynch’s veteran warrior, or self-determined, like Davis’ titular character, General Nanisca. There can also be an surprising connection between a mom and her daughter.
“The phrase immediately came to mind: intimately epic,” Prince-Bythewood mentioned, reflecting on when she first learn the script and grasped its many layers. She wished 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 frilly battle scenes — of which there are loads — come throughout as purposefully and viscerally because the quieter moments when the ladies are exchanging private tales or dancing in celebration or as an embrace of their authority. This isn’t a movie that solely rests in a blockbuster motion house (not like there’s something fallacious with that).
Rather, “The Woman King” thrives on each its private dimensions and lavish cinematic vitality. It exhibits a filmmaker on the high of her recreation and the various girls she’s teamed with who eagerly pushed themselves to their highest potential all through this tight, 63-day shoot in South Africa.
“I love my cast so much,” Prince-Bythewood mentioned with a giant smile.
That contains John Boyega, whose position as King Ghezo (primarily based, like Nawi, upon an actual individual) is small however vital. Essentially, he’s typically there to claim his ruling energy over Dahomey (and dominance over his many wives), but prolong his profound admiration for the ladies he put answerable for defending his kingdom.
When Prince-Bythewood met with Boyega for the position, she was struck by his dedication to elevating the ladies amongst 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 help has reverberated throughout the manufacturing. “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 may blame them? The set itself, by manufacturing designer Akin McKenzie, is completely gorgeous and instantly immerses the viewers, in addition to the solid, within the story.
“I wanted to give the actors a 360-world to play in,” the director mentioned. “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 name “The Woman King” gargantuan would virtually be to understate it. It’s a revelation, and higher than something Prince-Bythewood has ever executed earlier than. But it was a chance that she had been making ready for for an extended whereas.
“I would say in the last 10 years I’ve had a desire to do a big movie like this for us,” she mentioned. “‘Braveheart’ is one of my favorite movies. We haven’t gotten something like that.”
As the filmmaker has said in several interviews in the past, she had her sights set on a narrative about Haitian General Toussaint Louverture for years. One of her two sons additionally shares his identify.
“[The Louverture movie] was a story that had been percolating in my head that I wanted to do,” Prince-Bythewood mentioned. “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 chance 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 truly felt this manner 5 years in the past when she first got here throughout the challenge, with Davis already hooked up, the identical means many people hear about upcoming movies: by means of an article on-line.
And she felt a type of means that she wasn’t approached about it again then. “I literally said to myself, ‘Why didn’t they come to me?’” she recalled.
Then they did, however there was no script. When she requested them to come back again to her after they had one — what ended up being Mario Bello and Dana Stevens’ attractive narrative — it was only a 12 months and a half in the past, when Prince-Bythewood had determined to take a breather after “The Old Guard.”
But after studying the script, the filmmaker, as prepared as ever, knew she needed to seize the chance. “It was an absolute,” she mentioned. “‘I have to do this movie.’ Not a ‘I want to.’ I have to.”
She remembered her promise to take break day, although, and determined to undergo one other essential channel in her decision-making course of. “I sent the script to my husband, and he read it immediately,” the director mentioned. “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 started with Prince-Bythewood poring over “stacks” of books, journals and documentaries to delve into the lives of the Dahomey Amazons, and hiring consultants to assist authenticate the movie. What she discovered, unsurprisingly, was that loads of materials was written concerning the girls with little respect for his or her 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 mentioned, “and written by people who had an absolute incentive to dehumanize us, make us seem like savages.”
But she and her workforce had been decided “to sift through that to get to the truth.”
As a consequence, Prince-Bythewood has made her opus. Even she seems to be again on it and says, “The film is what I intended.”
That continued willpower to light up Black feminine humanity paid off in a means that solely a feminine director, particularly a Black girl, may guarantee. She infuses the movie with as a lot respect and love that she has for herself and different Black girls — full of all their complexities, pleasure, camaraderie, heartache, ferocity and self-adoration.
“I hope that my work is starting to do that,” Prince-Bythewood mentioned, “that women can look up on screen and see themselves reflected in a way that’s inspiring to them.”
“The Woman King” premiered on the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and can be launched in theaters on Sept. 16.